The orchilla

On several occasions we have talked about products made on the island that have been fundamental in the development of its economy. Among them we could remember the barilla, the cosco, the lime, the cereal, the aloe vera, the tomato, and, of course, the rich goat cheese. 

Today we bring you, to this Fuerteventura blog, the orchilla, another majorera raw material, which had great importance in the island’s economy. 

What is the orchilla and how important was it in Fuerteventura? 

The Orchilla (Roccella canariensis) is a lichen, that is, the product of the symbiosis between a fungus and an algae. It grows naturally and spontaneously throughout the island.

Thanks to its high orcein content, it has been used, from antiquity to the beginning of the 20th century, as a dye producer. 

The economic development of the Canary Islands, and especially of Fuerteventura, was closely linked to this small plant. It was also one of the reasons why the conquerors, Gadifer de la Salle and Jean de Betancourt, decided to take Fuerteventura. 

As a preamble to comment that the neighboring island of Lanzarote was occupied by Europeans, permanently, since the fourteenth century. However, despite the fact that Lanzarote and Fuerteventura are barely 8 kilometers apart, the Europeans were not very interested in setting foot on Fuerteventura. They thought that few things of value were in it. 

Only after a few incursions was it possible to verify that the island jealously guarded a very valuable material, the orchilla.

The orchilla is a dyeing lichen from which the purple color is extracted, one of the most valued colors since ancient times, a color reserved for kings, nobles and high-ranking clerics. 

Jean de Bethencourt thus justified future incursions and the conquest of Fuerteventura. 

And also grows on this island (Fuerteventura) a grana that is very valuable, called orchilla; It is used to dye cloth or other things and it is the best grain of that grain that can be found in any country, due to its condition, and if one day the island is conquered and converted to the Christian faith, that grain will be of great benefit to the Lord from the country.

The Norman, Jean de Bethencourt, was aware of the value of the orchilla, not in vain he was the owner of the fief of Grainville-la-Teinturière, whose main economic engine was the dyeing industry. 

One of the first measures taken by the Norman after the conquest was to reserve, exclusively, the right to obtain and trade orchilla. 

This is how it is quoted in “Le Canarien”, the chronicle of the conquest of the Canary Islands: 

“As far as the orchilla is concerned, no one should dare to sell it without a license from the king and lord of the country”

With the subsequent Castilian colonization, the export of orchilla became one of the most important economic sectors on the island. As a curious fact to mention that, at the end of the 15th century, some 75,000 kilos of orchilla were collected in Fuerteventura per year. Overexploitation, and the slow growth of the lichen, caused that figure to drop. Even so, in the 18th century, the annual orchilla harvest in Fuerteventura was around 30,000 kilos. 

How is the orchilla? 

The Orchilla (Roccella canariensis) is easily recognizable by its blackish color dotted with tiny whitish warts. It is made up of filaments that come out of a base, a crust firmly attached to the surface of the volcanic rock.

The orchilla develops better on the rocks and coastal cliffs facing north, where the influence of sea humidity is more important. 

How was the orchilla collected? 

Harvesting was done with great care. The filaments of the lichen had to be loosened from their crust without damaging the base. To do this they used a kind of comb with which they extracted the leaves from the orchilla. If the base was damaged, the lichen would no longer grow on it. 

The majoreros earned a well-deserved reputation as good orchilla collectors. They were in demand from other islands to collect this precious lichen. 

In Fuerteventura, specific places were created to “cultivate” orchilla. These enclaves are easily identifiable, since they are somewhat strange spaces for our current vision.

The first thing was to find the best area, which had a good humidity gradient, generally in badlands, or in places where any other crop was totally unviable. 

Later, a large number of walls were built with the same stones from the badlands. Sometimes these walls took somewhat labyrinthine forms. 

In just 5 years, which is the minimum time for the orchilla to fully develop, it could already be harvested like any other crop. 

Today it is possible to find remains of orchilleros on the island. Without going any further, in the Malpaís of Majada de la Lengua, in La Oliva, there are still traces of the orchillero and the house where the lichen was stored.

How was the dye made from the orchilla? 

Orchilla was generally exported unprocessed. The dye was made in the factories. England was, for centuries, the main importer of orchilla. 

Even so, on the island the orchilla was processed in a very rudimentary way. 

According to Viera y Clavijo: Once the orchilla was collected, it was sifted and moistened with urine (due to its nitrogen, phosphorous and ammonium content).

 It was stirred and a little slaked lime was added. This process had to be done every 2-3 hours for 3 days. After that time, a bright red, almost purple, paste was obtained. 

To use the paste as a tincture it was first necessary to dissolve it in warm water. Then more water was added to it, it was put on the fire and the stew was immersed in the boiling bath. 

The orchilla has become, today, an excellent resource for artisans who work with natural dyes. One of these artisans is Úrsula Josseffine Mocklinghoff, winner of the 2017 island craft award.


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