Here in Lichen Land, the tiny but vast community of lichens, bryophytes and fungi are having a party on the Wintergreen Trail. Cladonia and Peltigera, Stereocaulon and Candelariella, Xanthoparmelia and a small crowd of their crustose friends are sporting fancy apothecia (disc or cup that produces spores) in many shapes and colors. The place is decorated in the brightest colors-turquoise, jade green, yellow, white, black, gray, brown, rust, pale blue. A Cladonia first caught my eye; she was fringed and spangled with intricate weavings of pale green, crowned with a russet apothecia/cap perched on her tall slender podetia (stalk). Many other Cladonias waved jade colored cups, some fringed and some smooth edged. The Peltigera rufescens, that not long ago sported velvety gray thallus and dramatic, hooded, vase-like apothecia, now were a bit faded in places. But some of them had grown dozens of tiny, white rhizines (root like structures) from the underside of the thallus (the vegetative part of a lichen that contains the photobiant and mycobiont.
All this elaborate activity goes on within one inch of the ground. A wrong step by a human would destroy many years of growth. But you can join the party; pack a 6x or 10x hand lens, your camera, and just walk into Lichen Site 4. They’ll all be there. Once you step down the two stone steps and turn right, slow down. Stop. Take out the hand lens. Breathe and relax. Even though it’s a party down there, we need to slow down to join up with the Tiny Ones.
Have you ever hunted for 4-leaf clovers? Use the same type of gaze and attitude; you’ll be more successful with lichens because there are so many of them, you can’t miss them. Once a few are seen on the pine needle covered ground you will start to see the stalk-like podetia everywhere. Get down close to them, use your hand lens held close to your eye, then move closer or farther from the lichen to focus, keeping the lens close to your eye.
At ground level the elaborate, fringed structures make a fairyland scene. A few weeks ago, the podetia were straight and smooth pointed stalks. Now they sport cups, caps and fringes. The thallus (the leafy part) may have rhizines, brighter color and also more elaborate shapes. There are many very tiny lichen growing among the taller ones so be careful where you step! It truly is a forest in miniature, with a canopy, mid layer and ground layer of plants and animals.
There are several types and species of lichen sharing Cladonia’s forest. Peltigera sp. has been introduced earlier, but there are many more lichen here. On the edge of the narrow pathway, rocks with lichens barely discernible in the summer now are alive with color and texture. These are crustose lichens, and there are quite a few species here. Many
species of crustose lichen on the rocks at this site have produced apothecia. Look for dark spots in the light colored crustose lichen body. Most of the lichen on these rocks are white, gray, or blue-gray. There also are some black crustose lichen here. Look closely with your hand lens to check for apothecia on the black lichen; they are hard to see. How many different species of lichen can you find? These can be very hard to identify without a high powered microscope to see details, and chemicals to test certain reactions lichens may have. At this time, the Lichen Hunters are simply recognizing these are ‘crustose’ forms.
On the low, sandy cliff (the cliff is 2-3 feet high) at the top of this area, the walls have been decorated in turquoise, green and white. The colors are bright and clear. In the shadows under the rocky overhang, the gauzy, lacy texture of lichen mixed with moss, spider webs and falling grains of sand make a confusing scene. What is lichen, and what is sand grains, or spider webs?
As the sunbeams illuminated strands of turquoise and green against the dark recesses it seemed to be an endless mass of tangled threads. Much of the lichen here is probably a Stereocaulon sp. commonly called ‘Rock Foam’. There are several species, some of which, in the arctic, are food for caribou during famine.
Pixie Foam, a miniature Stereocaulon species, often grows where there is a high concentration of metals in the rock. Lichens are used all over the world to prospect for minerals by analyzing the mineral content of the lichen thallus. (From ‘Lichens of the North Woods).
How many species of lichens can you sort out, under the sandy ledge? There are also mosses, ferns and fungi here. How many different life forms can you find, of any kind? This is a rich, active place, yet we know almost nothing about the lives here, or what their place in the world might be.
This visit to Lichen Land left me feeling as if I’d crashed a party. The last time I was here, the lichen were growing podetia but were much smaller. Today I crossed the threshold of two stone steps into their world, and it had changed dramatically. Colors were brilliant, forms were elaborate; the lichens seemed more alive! They didn’t seem like the same lichens I’d seen earlier. It was quiet, but I felt there was music and shouting and dancing going on, in a tiny way. It felt like a party.
As I walked away I thought about how the earth, rock, sand, and trees, each have a community of lichen. They are not plants, they are not animals; they are simply something else. What do they weave for the web of life in the world as we know it? Why do they cover such a large part of the earth’s land surface? There are over a hundred species of lichens on the base of the trees in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. We don’t know how many different ones are in the canopy, or the soil or on the rocks here. Everything in Nature has a place and a purpose. The Lichen Hunters are exploring what that might be for the lichens in the Kickapoo. Come on out for a walk in the woods and help us learn about the Tiny Ones.
Many lichen cannot be named unless they are observed when in a fertile state. One common crustose lichen in the Appalachian region has been observed for many years but never seen reproducing. That changed when a large number of fertile lichen were found on the top of Hangover Mountain in western North Carolina. They were common in many areas but this was the first time anyone had seen them in a fertile state. These lichen were then named….for Dolly Parton. Japewiella dollypartoniana now had a formal name and characteristics to identify it in the future.
Jessica L. Allen and James C. Lendemer, who made the discovery and published their findings in 2015, described the lichen as “….distinguished from other species of Japewia and Japewiella by its sorediate thallus and production of norstictic acid….”. There is more technical description of the lichen that follows.
Japewiella dollypartoniana is described as new to science based on material from the Appalachian Mountains and adjacent regions of the Atlantic Coastal Plain. It is distinguished from other species of Japewia and Japewiella by its sorediate thallus and production of norstictic acid. Placement in Japewiella is supported by characters from fertile populations discovered in the Unicoi Mountains of western North Carolina which have apothecia that resemble those of Japewia tornoënsis (Nyl.) Tønsberg but differ in having a well-developed proper exciple and ascospores without a thick, gelatinous sheath.
Did you know that many, maybe most lichens have some antibiotic properties? Animals and birds know this and eat or use lichens in various ways that may help them stay healthy. One common use of lichens is as a construction material in bird nests. The lichens may help keep baby birds disease free. Many birds use lichens, so look for nests especially when the leaves fall off the trees in autumn and nests are easier to find, and notice how many may have some lichens incorporated. If you can figure out what species of bird made the nest, that’s even better. Please let the Lichen Hunters know of your find.
It is not for us to know all the reasons a blue -gray gnatcatcher builds its home with lichens, but I can think of several possible reasons. Of course one reason is the known antibiotic property of the lichen; a built in disinfectant, in the walls of this perfect little home! Another reason may be that lichens are beautiful; the lovely blue-gray color the gnatcatcher likes in the lichens can be found in elegant home decor magazines, for human homes. Maybe the blue-gray gnatcatcher is matching its own color by using the same color of lichen on its nest walls, as we would wear harmonious colors because they are pleasing to see. Another reason may be that the flat surface of the foliose lichen may be somewhat water resistant and makes a nice solid surface. Also, since the lichens grow on the tree branches, covering the nest with the same lichen is good camouflage, hiding the chicks who would be a tasty treat for many predators, as well as the adult birds when they are resting on the nest.
Years ago I found a hummingbird nest made of lichens, in an apple tree. The nest was the size of a thimble. I considered it a small miracle that branch appeared right in front of me while picking apples.
This lovely photograph is from Paul and Bernadette Hayes. They recently found the nest about 10 feet up in a box elder tree, on a horizontal branch. It is the home of a bluegray gnatcatcher. Thank you Paul and Bernadette.
Discovering a well made birds nest covered in lichen is a lucky find. Please share your discoveries so we can learn about the birds in our home territory that use lichens.
This gorgeous lichen was found by Julie Hoel in St. George Island State Park, off the panhandle of Florida, late this winter. It is growing in a slash pine forest, on sandy ground. Thanks Julie for sharing this.
We don’t see this lichen in the Kickapoo, but I remember similar lichen in the jack pine forests of the Wisconsin River valley when I was a child. The oak and jack pine forests from Mazomanie, Arena, Spring Green, and Lone Rock area were filled with mosses and lichens. The ground was covered and they hung on tree branches. It was a wonderland of shapes and colors. As a child I knew it was a magical place and I spent many hours there but had no way to know what I was seeing. Now those forests are mostly gone, covered with irrigated, industrial scale, sprayed crops. The lichen are in retreat and mostly absent. With them went the diversity of birds, amphibians and plants that made up that fragile and beautiful land. In those days only a child would recognize the beauty in that dry, unassuming landscape but now some of the goat prairies and grasslands are being restored, and there are remnants of sandy jack pine forests in the river valley.
Julie’s Florida lichen picture inspires me to explore some of the Wisconsin River valley forests that are left to search for my lichen and moss friends from years ago.
I’ll let you know what I find!
Cladonia evansii with its friends, the mosses
photo by Julie Hoel
I have had the great fortune to be travelling in Australia since early December. In the midst of visiting friends and family I have also been in search of lichens.
Discovering lichens on a rusty steel hull of a 100 year old gold digging machine in a dried up river bed has been the greatest surprise to me.
The most noticeable difference from lichens at Kickapoo Valley Reserve has been the extreme absence of tree lichens in many areas. While considering this, it clicked that over half of the trees in Australia being eucalyptus and melaluca all decortify every year (lose their bark). Lichens being slow growing communities are not so partial to growing on constantly changing strata.
I was sure I would find many in the damp sub-tropical forests, and farmlands, but was really surprised to discover them in what I would have considered inhospitable locations: dry river beds with dead trees and running rampant across boulders washed by ocean tides and blasted by hot sun. Some of these locations have been in drought for over 7 years. Seasides, bereft of most plant life and old tombstones in dry country graveyards, were populated with many different communities of lichens. I do not know many of their names, but it has been a delight to discover their adaptability.
The colors are quite spectacular, particularly in the moist warm areas of the eastern coast.
Paying attention to lichens on this journey to Australia has added a new dimension to my journey, as I not only witness the drama of this landscape in its large breathtaking vistas, but also able to recognize the miniaturized vistas and complexities of lichen communities in very diverse landscapes.
It is a new depth of exploration and has expanded my vision of forests, seascapes, and dry farms and eucalypt forests.
I wonder what lichens exist in the dry moonscape of Cooper Pedy or the towering red rock of Uluru and the Olgas all places I had the opportunity to travel to in the past, but did not know enough to seek them out.
Im “lichen” these lichens as they are adding a new dimension to my journey.
submitted by mary lou
Julie, Olga and I went out to view the white and wonderful woods after the big snow a couple days ago, and I, of course, had a secret agenda to also check on the Little Ones. As soon as the new snow warmed slightly the snow fleas were out hopping around. I knew the lichen would not be hopping around! But they do show their colors in the snow and I am still searching for new species. Each day in the forest brings the possibility of meeting a new lichen (as well as whatever other wonders appear whenever one stays in the woods a while). We are walking on Cutoff Trail. The ice has formed curtains along the rock walls, as it has almost everywhere this year.
No ice caves here, just a small cliff. The rock is mostly covered with liverwort, moss, fern; the lichen are small. One of my favorite trees, the river birch with its beautiful coppery bark, stands here.
The lichen like this tree too; the moist base has a colony of aqua blue lichen. Aren’t they beautiful on the red and silver bark? Since the names are not verified yet, I can describe them any way I wish, in this blog anyway! Don’t worry, names will be forthcoming by spring.
Turkeys flapped around in the treetops. The sun came out. On the south slope, snow in the branches began to melt, just enough to form liquid water at the edges of the snow on each branch. The trees were suddenly illuminated in diamonds of light. A few moments later as we walked away from the direct sunshine, the warming air simply made the clumps of snow in the branches fall off on our heads.
This is not a lichen, it is a fungus, making a little snow sculpture on the side of a tree.
While we move about so quickly and ceaselessly, the trees, moss, rocks and lichen quietly remain. The ice moves too. More slowly than us but faster than lichen, rock or tree; changing all those slow moving ones as it forms, grows and then disappears. The lichen and their rocks and trees will be here as we and the ice come and go.
Remember to enjoy the small things in life.
Remember this, from a week ago? A little frosty but still green and growing.
Today, January 10th, it was 5 degrees above zero and this is my lichen hunting outfit; every layer of Canadian ski clothes I can find:
And here’s Lichen Land now:
But as we know, the lichen are quietly waiting for the ice to melt. Meanwhile the ice is busy make beautiful patterns. I wonder what it looks like from underneath, where the lichens are?
Since it was so cold today, I went out to see what the lichens looked like on the hill behind our house. As I searched for them in the ice and snow I thought about how quickly they exchange their active life for dormancy. Another warm day and these ice covered lichen will be back to life in a few hours.
Below: very cold lichen
It’s fun to see what else is out in the woods besides the lichen.
This is the hilltop where these pictures were taken:
It’s a busy place. See all the tracks? Our coyote friends like to gather in this area and sing to us. Their tracks tell the story of what they do while here.
Sandstone catching the afternoon light
At the top of the ridge a dead tree trunk supported these fungus
After an hour there seemed to be more and more snow and less lichens, and it was getting colder so I went home. I went less than a quarter mile from the house and had a good adventure. What’s close to home where you live? If you’re out there and meet your own resident lichens, share them with us!
Today a friend and I walked to the top of Black Hawk rock. A light snow still covered shady areas, the sun was low in the sky and gray-blue clouds scattered into the distance. There was no wind, no birds singing. A flock of turkeys walked across the ridge above us making clucky noises. As we climbed up the west side of the hill, the colors of tree trunks, fallen leaves, and rocks seemed to get brighter and brighter. Greens, blues, white, yellow. Lichens! If they could sing, they probably would be doing a hallelujah chorus today. Everything is saturated from many days of rain and light snow, and the temperatures have been above or near freezing, and nothing else is growing to block the light. The Little Ones are feeling good! The forest is full of living, growing plants in the middle of winter. They are all very tiny and all they need is moisture, light and above freezing temperatures to flourish while all other plants and most animals are dormant.
Green and blue lichen covered pieces of bark scattered on the ground from a fallen branch.
Part way up the hill a tree trunk was lined with white stripes. From smooth white layers to toothed patches this fungus (possibly Irpex lacteus) changed shape and finally supported small white fungus with purple red undersides.
Moss, liverworts and lichens crowded branches and then rocks as we climbed onto the top of the ridge.
At the top we stand on the rocky point and the whole Kickapoo valley falls away into the distance; to the east, south and west. The sun breaks through clouds illuminating the far reaches of the valley and fallow fields turned golden. Juniper and oak cling to bare rock here and the lichen cling to the trees and rock. Every living thing is attached to another living thing. Snow and lichen share the rough branches. Some of the lichen are frozen solid but close to them others are soft and flexible. The cup shaped lichen are frozen solid, the liverworts, moss and flat green lichen are not, in the picture below.
The rock at the top of the cliff feels many footsteps over time but lichen are everywhere here. Gray, yellow, orange, blue, green, purple, white; the rock looks painted with lichens. We look down across the valley and realize that much of the color we see in the landscape is the color of the lichen and mosses that are an essential part of the system of lives that make our world alive. The white and pale green colors of branches in the treetops are lichen; the yellow, gold, green and black of rock faces are lichens, and their companions the moss and liverworts.
We ended the day walking through a field of big bluestem and other prairie plants, now golden and coppery in the sun. We know tomorrow the Little Ones will be frozen and dormant under the coming snowstorm; but as soon as the sun touches them again they will come back to life.
PS: My attempts to name species is open for corrections and suggestions. We are working on learning to identify lichen (and fungi and moss) so at this time are making guesses at best. If you know what a lichen or plant is in one of these pictures, please let us know what you think.
This is a small poem by Pablo Neruda, who was exquisitely observant of the world he inhabited. Does anyone else have a lichen poem? Send it to us!
Lichen on Stone
Llichen on stone; the web
of green rubber
weaves an old hieroglyphic,
unfolding the script
of the sea
on the curve of a boulder.
The sun reads it. The mollusk devours it.
on stone, with a bristling of hackles.
An alphabet moves in the silence,
printing its drowned incunabula
on the naked flank of the beaches.
climb, higher, plaiting and braiding, piling
their nap in the caverns of ocean and air, coming
and going, until nothing may dance but the wave
and nothing persist but the wind.