Rock Tripe

Rock Tripe Lichen attached to a rock at 2,000 feet in Shenandoah National Park

Common Name:  Rock Tripe, Navel lichen –   The common name is a direct translation of tripe-de-roche, the French name for the lichen. Tripe is the name for the wall of the stomach of a ruminant animal when consumed as a food. It has taken on a number of secondary meanings that generally convey a notion of being worthless or of inferior quality. Thus the common name conveys that it is a poor quality food, like tripe, that is found on rocks.

Scientific NameUmbilicaria mammulata – The genus is derived from the Latin umbilicus meaning navel (the umbilical cord attachment point); the whorled shape of the lichen with its single attachment point is similar in appearance to a navel – note that  the common name navel lichen (used by the USDA) is based on this association.  The species name is from the Latin word mammula meaning small breast. This is in reference to the presence of  papillae on the lower, black surface of the lichen; a papilla is a small, rounded bump, like goose flesh. The term mammular means covered with papillae. The net result is a lichen that looks like a navel and is covered with small bumps.

Alexander von Humboldt is credited with the observation that biology varies equally by elevation or latitude which he noted in the ascent of Mount Chimborazo in the Andes at the dawn of the nineteenth century. [1] For species that are distributed mostly or wholly in Nordic regions, in part because the air is more pristine, this equivalence allows for access by  ascent. The Appalachian Mountains rise from the eastern side of the North American (tectonic) plate in a literal blue ridge of billion-year old granitic rock overlooking the Piedmont “foot of the mountain” to the east like a brooding parent. This is the realm of rock tripe, with large, rounded structures that comprise the main body called the  thallus that appear to be the peeling chips of a badly botched paint job. Inky black on the bottom, they are held in place by a single attachment point near the center. The lighter colored top surface faces the sun’s photons that provide the energy processed by algae of the genus Trebouxia.  Rock tripe is of course a type of lichen; a dual organism that consists of both a fungus and an alga (some also have cyanobacteria) that live in mutualism, a type of symbiosis in which both constituents share the benefits of the association. A lichen has been called a fungus that has discovered agriculture; the fungus constitutes the bulk of the extant vegetative body or thallus. The algal partner or photobiont having been incorporated as a source of photosynthetic energy.  The close mutual relationship allows lichens to occupy extremely adverse environmental habitats that range from isolated rock outcrops in the frigid rarefied atmosphere at elevations over 6,000 meters; there are over 3,600 species of lichen in North America alone. Rock tripe are among the hardiest of the lichens, they can survive extreme drought for over 62 weeks. The survival of lichens in axenic environments lends credence to the notion that the first aquatic plants to make landfall in the Silurian Period some 400 million years ago were some form of algae that brought along their fungal partners for structure and support, the mycorrhizal associations of most of our Holocene Epoch plants are perhaps vestigial.

Rock Tripe covering an outcrop of Silurian sandstone on Massanutten Mountain

The “rock” part of rock tripe is clear, as a mineral substrate is both necessary and sufficient for its domicile. What about tripe?  Tripe is defined as either the portion of a ruminant animal’s stomach consumed as food or it can mean anything worthless or offensive. In the minds of all vegetarians and many others, the two meanings are synonymous. As a vegetarian in practice and an omnivore in spirit, some expatiation is warranted. Tripe is an exemplar of British cuisine, which is noted for meat and potato delicacies like bangers and mash; a Tripe Marketing Board persists in homage to its former glory. [2] Offal is the general term for the internal organs of animals; the more popular connotation is refuse or garbage with a synonymy even more pronounced. Two mitigating factors are germane to any discussion of the consumption of animal parts; one historical and the other philosophical. Historically, paleolithic hunters cherished the perishable internal organs for their own consumption in the field, dragging the meat back to their encampments for others. Stomachs were especially prized and may well have been consumed along with their contents. In medieval times, abattoirs were gruesome affairs, butchers standing knee deep in animal parts covered with their blood. Every part was put to use: the intestines for sausages; heads for head cheese; and random scraps for scrapple among many others.  [3] The antiseptic package of hamburger and the guarantee of adequate food whenever hungry was preceded by eons of everything edible being eaten. Philosophically, the total consumption of anything that is killed for its life-giving meat is justifiable according to food chain ecology. Cows can eat grass and humans can’t; as long as the former are afforded a reasonable life ended by a swift and painless death, the latter are surely legitimate in making a meal of them. On the other hand, fewer cows means less of the greenhouse gas methane from their belching, which is another issue altogether. Not eating them in the first place is something to consider … most edible fungi have significant amounts of protein and all eight essential amino acids. As omnivores, we get to choose. Regardless,  humans will eat  just about anything (including each other) to stay alive – which is where rock tripe comes in.

Since the lichens called rock tripe thrive in the harshest arctic climates and maintain their viability through the winter, they have long served as a source of emergency food by Native Americans. The French name tripe-de-roche precedes the translation into the English rock tripe; the provenance of the term is Canadian.  The Inuit peoples of the Canadian arctic regions considered rock tripe to be a food of last resort, to be eaten only in times of starvation, its continuous use thought to be pathological.  Other Native Americans found it more palatable, incorporating it into their routine regimen of food gathering and preparation. For example the Cree, which constitute the largest group of First Nations (Native Canadians, or in Quebecois, Autochthones), used it as an additive to fish broth to make a thick soup that was not only eaten for nutrition but was considered to be somewhat medicinal, affording nourishment to the sick. [4]

The early explorers of the North America became aware of the use of rock tripe as a survival food from the indigenous peoples, and used it on occasion of isolation to stave off starvation. Most notable was the first expedition of Sir John Franklin to map out the Northwest Passage from Europe to Asia from 1819 to 1822. In the second year of the exploration, the party of 20 was forced to return on foot when their two birch bark canoes became damaged. Franklin’s journal recorded the epic journey which has become one of the epitomes of deprivation: “Previous to setting out, the whole party ate the remains of their old shoes, and whatever scraps of leather they had, to strengthen their stomachs for the fatigue of the day’s journey …. The tripe-de-roche, even where we got enough, only serving to allay the pangs of hunger for a short time.”  Nine of the party succumbed to the ordeal. [5] Franklin survived only to perish with 134 officers and sailors on the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror on his fourth quest for the Northwest Passage; they were last seen in July of 1845. It is hypothesized from Inuit sources and the remains of the stranded mariners that they must have escaped the ships and set out over the ice in desperation. Some of the skeletal bones showed signs of knife marks suggesting that cannibalism may have been a last resort. That is what can happen when you can’t find any rock tripe. The two ships were located lying about 100 miles apart off King William Island in northern Canada using side-scan sonar about five years ago as the area has become largely ice-free due to global warming. The Northwest Passage is now very nearly a reality, but for all the wrong reasons. [6]

Cooked Rock Tripe is both nutritious with good fungal taste and texture

The different species of the genus are global in scope with different local names according to custom, including shi er meaning “rock ear” in Chinese, ‘stone mushroom’ soegi posot meaning “stone mushroom” in Korean and iwatake meaning “crag mushroom” in Japanese. Ironically, U. esculenta, a rock tripe species indigenous to Asia,  is considered a delicacy. It is so sought after that harvesters repel down steep slopes to collect it, favoring wet weather to reduce the risk of crumbling of the delicate lichen. [7] The nutritional and medicinal value of rock tripe fungi has been investigated experimentally to evaluate its viability as a survival food. A lichen supplementation was given to female mice for three weeks to measure its effects on growth, metabolism and immune function in comparison to a control group fed a standard diet.  The lichen-fed mice had a higher growth rate and ate more than the control group. Testing of the vital organs, including the heart, liver, kidneys and spleen revealed the lichen diet had no deleterious effects. The study concluded that rock tripe was not only a good source of nutrition in survival situations but that it acted to stimulate the immune system, as manifest in an increase in the production spleen B-lymphocytes. A second evaluation of several varieties of rock tripe found that they manifested substantive anti-bacterial activity against most of the bacteria tested. [8] Rock tripe is certainly worth a try, if only to survive the winter, but those are, alas, becoming shorter and warmer. It is plentiful, readily harvested, easy to cook, and has a texture that promotes palatability. Simply pluck from the side of  a rock, take it home, wash it, and boil it for about ten minutes for an excellent additive to soups or salads.

1. Rahbek, C. et al “Humboldt’s enigma: What causes global patterns of mountain diversity?” Science, 13 September 2019, Volume 365, Issue 6458, pp. 1108-1113.

2. https://tripemarketingboard.co.uk/

3. Tannahill, R., Food in History, Three Rivers Press, New York, 1988, pp 12-18, 291-292.

4. Brodo, I., Sharnoff, Sylvia and Sharnoff, Stephen, Lichens of North America, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2001 pp 78-83. The essential lichen reference

5. Davis, R. Sir John Franklin’s Journals and Correspondence First Arctic Land Expedition (1819-1821) Champlain Society, 1995.

6. Vaidyanathan, G. “Mysterious lost ships, HMS Terror and Erebus, reveal new layer of clues in Arctic” Washington Post, 27 November 2016

7. Riedel, T. “Eating Iwatake, A Rock Tripe from Japan”, Fungi, Volume 7, Number 2-3 Summer 2014. Pp 63-65.

8. Ng, I. and Kälman, S. “The lichen rock tripe (Lasallia pustulata) as survival food: effects on growth, metabolism and immune function in Balb/c mice.” Natural Toxins 1999, Volume 9 Number 6, pp 321-329.

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