Lichen heaths and lichen harvesting in Rokua

Lichens are a special feature of the terrain in Rokua and the wider Rokua Geopark area. The grey, lichen-covered pine heath stretches from the Rokua hills and the forests of Ahmas to Säräisniemi, Kankari, Neittävä and the island of Manamansalo. Dozens of different lichen species thrive in these habitats.

Lichen harvesting in Ahmaskangas in Rokua. Photograph: Raija Robinson 1980-1985. Raija Robinson's private collection.

This extensive lichen heath began to form at the end of the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago on sandbanks and sandy ridges – both habitats with an extremely thin layer of humus, which is favourable for lichens.

Lichens thrive in dry forests and have provided a livelihood for many people. It was an important winter food for the forest deer that were once hunted here by northern tribes. Lichen was also used as reindeer fodder and, in years of crop failure and famine, was mixed with tree bark to make bark bread. Lichen has also been used as a sealant, insulation and dehumidifier in log houses and windows. A piece of dry lichen can absorb up to twice its weight in water, helping to keep windows clear of condensation.

Sustainable harvesting

The most common of Rokua’s lichens is the light-grey and relatively large star-tipped cup lichen. It is also the best of them for both decorative and practical purposes.

Lichen is a delicate plant that usually grows to its full size in five to ten years, at a rate of approximately five millimetres per year. As the lichen grows, its base decays, so the lichen carpet never grows more than about ten centimetres high. This depth of approximately an extended finger is the thickness that the top of the lichen grows to as the base decays. Therefore, harvesting in moderation does not destroy the lichen, but allows it to grow back every few years.

Harvesting of lichen began in Rokua in the 1920s. The work is very dependent on the weather. Lichen was mainly harvested in wet weather during the summer to prevent it from crumbling during handling. If the lichen was harvested in dry weather, it was first moistened with water from a pond or lake to prevent it from crumbling.

After harvesting, the lichen was carried in sacks to sieving stations where it was poured into a wooden sieve. A low, lattice-like wooden box made of narrow slats was hung from a pole between two trees a few metres above the ground. When the screen is shaken, sand, needles and other unwanted material fall through the bottom, but the lichen remains on the screen. The cleaned lichen was then packed into boxes and salted to prevent the tightly packed and moist lichen from rotting. Salting was later abandoned along with the summer harvest.

Harvesting methods have evolved. In the 1940s the lichen began to be collected in lighter, single-layer wooden boxes for drying, whereas previously it had been sent abroad in moist wooden boxes. Methods of drying the lichen were also developed, using practices known from grain drying.

Source of income for local people

Before the railway was built, lichen was transported from the forests to the harbours by horse-drawn wagons and then down the River Oulujoki to Oulu by barge. A single load usually consisted of ten boxes of lichen, but at best fifteen boxes, or about 450 kilos of lichen, could be transported on a single wagon. The transport of lichens became easier when the lorry was introduced in the 1930s. Loads of lichen were transported by Ford lorry from Rokua via Neittävä to Nuojua railway station, which had been built in the late 1920s.

Lichen has been harvested in Rokua for decades, mainly for the Central European market, including Germany. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the villages of Ahmas and Neittävä had many lichen buyers and sellers. The amount of lichen produced in the Vaala area peaked in the late 1970s, when it accounted for about one-sixth of all lichen harvested in Finland, with the neighbouring town of Utajärvi in second place.

Gathering lichen is slow and painstaking work. It is a delicate and fragile material. The skill is slow to learn and the earnings are low, which has often meant a high turnover of workers. On the other hand, some lichen pickers became very effective professionals. An experienced lichen picker could harvest up to 60 boxes in an eight-hour day, or about one box every nine minutes. The record was reportedly set by Väinö Anttonen in 1953, when he collected no less than 120 single-layer boxes of lichen in one day.

Lichen carpet in Rokua. Photograph: Harri Tarvainen 2022. Rokua Geopark.

Collecting lichen was an important source of income for many people in the area, and there was never a shortage of pickers. In the 1930s, Rokua even had two lichen pickers’ houses, which were regularly visited by coffee and bun sellers. At its peak, there were almost as many young people working in the lichen forests as in the strawberry fields of central and southern Finland. Raija Robinson from Rokua remembers what the work was like in the 1950s:

“In Ahmas and Rokua, lichen harvesting was the most important source of income after agriculture. When the rains stopped in the summer, families would pack their lunches and head for the forest – everyone who could work would come. Many families used the lichen income to educate their children and buy farm machinery and other necessities. Many of the villagers had their own lichen heaths from which they earned a good income by collecting and drying the lichen. Lichen merchants would collect the dried and cleaned lichen, packed in cardboard boxes, and send it to buyers. The lichen was picked one at a time; it was not permitted to harvest large areas at once. The lichen was first shaken clean and collected under the arm, then packed into boxes and taken home by tractor to dry. Lichen harvesting was painstaking work. Unevenly stacked or badly cleaned boxes of lichen were not accepted for sale.”

Until the 1990s, lichen harvesting and trading employed dozens of local people and brought income to the area, with several companies exporting the lichen abroad. As the number of lichen buyers gradually declined, the lichen heath was rented out to brokers who brought their own pickers. Lichen picking is not covered by the Finnish “Everyman’s Right” and can only be done on leased land. Today, lichen is mainly used as a decorative material in flower arrangements and funeral wreaths, and some is exported to European zoos for use as reindeer fodder.

Lichen in Rokua. Photograph: Harri Tarvainen 2018. Rokua Geopark.


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