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The Orchilla or roccella canariensis is a black lichen with white spots which grows around the rocky coast because of the presence of marine humidity and the salty environment. The plant has been used for colouring textile since the beginning of ancient times. The Orchilla is a product of symbiosis between a fungus and an algae. It takes the plant about 6 years to mature. The value of the plant is in the purple colour that can be extracted from its branches.
Lanzarote and Fuerteventura are the islands that once were most populated by the Orchilla and which the Phoenicians seem to have visited long time ago to establish colonies. Both islands were later described by Plinius as "the Purple Islands" and they were developed in the first century B.C. by king Juba of Mauretania as supplier to his dyeing industry. (1)
One of the mayor reasons for Jean de Bethencourt to conquer Lanzarote and later Fuerteventura was the presence of la Orchilla, previously known by him. He was at that time owner of the Norman village Grainville-la-Teinturiére, a reputed area for dyeing textiles.
The Orchilla has been subject to intensive exploitation during the 18th century, and contributed in a very significant way to the economic development of both islands. The collection of the Orchilla from the hills was risky and many lost their lives. Most of the victims were buried in caves, close to where they met with their destiny.
The dye was prepared by first crushing the dried Lichen, adding ammonia to the powder and then adding chalk. This mixture was stirred every 2 hours for 3 days and left to rest. After 8 days the resulting paste showed a red colour, time to collect. The red paste was mixed with luke-warm water to make up the dyeing mixture. One could start dyeing textiles by putting the fabric into the boiling mixture. The discovery of synthetic dyes in the 19th century put an end to the industry based on the Orchilla.