Mariton: I Don’t Just Love’em – I Lichen

June 7, 2020

by Tim Burris, Preserve Manager

Photo by Tim Burris

So, one of the upsides of the pandemic has been better air quality.  More empty roads and more empty work spaces meant less electricity generation and less emissions.  We need to think about how to keep the economy running while doing without the emissions.

Photo by Tim Burris

One of the up-side-effects of the pandemic might be an increase in lichens:  those wonderful symbiotic combinations of a fungi and an alga (plant).  Only the maddest Mad Scientist would think about marrying two different life groups to form another distinct group of organisms.  (A lichen is biologically weirder than the mythic Centaur.)   And then you combine different species of fungi with different species of algae to form different lichens.  Oh my!

Photo by Tim Burris

At least three different lichens on this rock.

Lichens rely on the air for many of their elements (algae – a plant – lack roots).  So, lichens are often indicators of good air quality (and the lack of lichens can be an indicator of air pollution).  On hunting trips in Canada (above the 55th Parallel) I was fascinated by the lichens.  I saw orange, purple, and red lichens growing on rocks and the small Black Spruce trees.  The variety of greens was astonishing.  I could tell some of those lichens were ancient.  Some lichens even had other lichens growing on them.

Photo by Tim Burris

You have to love the texture!

I mused about lichens a lot while pulling garlic mustard this spring.  (Lichens were growing on the rocks where I was working, and pulling garlic mustard doesn’t tax many brain cells, leaving your brain a lot of energy for thinking.)  If we could continue to improve air quality, could we see lichens growing in new, unexpected places?  Would people be freaked out if they suddenly found lichens thriving on their houses, decks and trees?  Lichens appear other-worldly, and I can imagine the calls from concerned homeowners who had never seen lichens before.