Naturalist’s Notebook: I’m Liking Lichens!


Welcome to another page from the Naturalist’s Notebook. I hope you have been having fun exploring the nature all around your house or neighborhood.

If this blog encourages you to notice and learn about something that you’ve never wondered about before, I will consider it a big success. Maybe today’s subject will be an eye-opener for you.

Lichens (pronounced LIKE-IN) are very common. There are over 17,000 species found around the world. They are found everywhere, but many people go through their whole lives without ever noticing them.

Lichen grows very slowly. It grows on trees and it grows on rocks. Sometimes it completely covers them. When you look at it real close, it looks like a strange alien creature.

At my house, two very large oak trees live only a few feet outside my front door. If I asked you what color tree trunks are, what would you say? Brown? Gray? Black?

The trunks of my old oaks are green. That’s because they are completely covered by lichens. I included a photo to prove it.

Sometimes small dead branches break off these trees during storms, and when I pick them up I’m amazed at the many kinds of lichens growing on them. They are so pretty and interesting. I’ve placed them all around my patch of special woodland wildflowers. They look great there. Some of the photos with this article were taken in my wildflower and lichen garden.

I began taking pictures of lichens and blowing them up so I could better see their structure. Wow! Some lichens grow like a crust, very close to whatever they live on. Some look like frilly lettuce. Some are strange green, bushy, hairy cups and saucers. They are weird and beautiful.

I enjoyed their look, but I really didn’t know much about lichens. I began to wonder if the lichens were somehow hurting my trees. This called for some time on the internet to learn more.

I found out some really interesting things about lichen. Lichens are made up of two completely different things. Lichens are a combination of a fungus (think mushroom) and a plant – an algae (think of that green, slimy stuff that grows on rocks in the water).

The fungus gives the algae a place to live and makes it possible for algae to live all over the world, not just in water. The algae produces carbohydrates that is food for the fungus. Since it is a plant, it takes in carbon dioxide from the air and then releases oxygen, which we need to be able to breathe.

Scientists call this a SYMBIOTIC (pronounced SIM-BEE-O (O as on bog)-TIK) relationship. They help each other, and one couldn’t survive without the other.

Turns out lichen doesn’t hurt a tree at all. It is just a surface for the lichen to grow on. They absorb mineral nutrients from the air and rainfall, so they don’t steal anything from the tree.

I hope you enjoy looking at the lichen photos I took. Since I am just learning about lichens, just like you, I don’t know the names of many of them.

The first photo of the hairy, branching clump is called Reindeer Lichen. Although it grows around here, it also grows far up north where Reindeer live, and they think it is very tasty!

The second photo is pretty neat. Lichen is growing on a rock full of fossils of ancient undersea creatures called crinoids.

The third picture is of an oak branch in my woods. Not only is it covered in lichens, it also has some really pretty orange turkeytail fungus growing on it and helping break down (decompose) the wood.

Photo 4 is lichen that looks like curly lettuce.

Photo 5 is a beautiful blue-green lichen growing on a live farkleberry bush in my woods. Yes, that is really the bush’s name.

Photo 6 shows my green oak tree trunk.

Photo 7 shows lichen growing on an old telegraph crossarm.

Photo 8 is a close-up of a really strange, alien-looking lichen.

Photos 9 and 10 show several types of lichens on a fallen oak tree branch. The hairy looking one is called Oakmoss.

Go out to see if you can find lichens living around you. Maybe you could use a magnifying glass to study them up-close. Can you find any growing on rocks? Are there trees in your yard or neighborhood with lichens growing on them? How many different types and colors can you find?

You might discover that YOU also are liking lichen. Good hunting.

Mr. Bill





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