Lichen is an organism made up of two separate species, fungi and algae.
—Dr. Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) “The Big Bang Theory”
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What comes to mind when we think of winter—cold, snow, ice, wind? Perhaps it’s skiing or snowshoeing, or making snow people. Or maybe, it’s the comforts of a good book, a warm cup of herbal tea, and the warmth of a fire burning in the hearth. What probably isn’t on the winter list, are wildflowers.
With snowflakes swirling through the air like goose down, it’s hard to think about wildflowers—after all, they are those bright sweet things that delight our senses during the showery-sunshiny months of spring and summer, certainly not during the chilly months of autumn and winter, or do they? Believe it or not, winter does have its wildflowers, just not the kind we expect to see. Winter wildflowers are those lovely little green (sometimes red, yellow, and orange) plants that cling to soil, rocks, trees, and other woody debris—they are the lichens.
There are some 3,600 lichen species in North America, and some 30,000 species worldwide. Lichens are amazing life forms, extraordinary really, considering that they grow in some of the most extreme conditions on the planet. Highly adaptable, they are found from Antarctica and arid deserts, to wet forests, to salty coastlines, and just about every place in between. The one thing that lichens can’t tolerate, however, is pollution, some more than others, which has earned them the name “clean air indicators.”
Lichens are typically long-lived; they occur year-round, and go dormant during dry spells. Their appearance varies in size, shape, and color, and they are grouped into categories accordingly.
▸ Crust lichen: Flat with a hard surface.
▸ Hair lichen: Intricately branched, upright or hanging, and hair-like.
▸ Leaf lichen: Small to large, and leafy.
▸ Shrub lichen: Heavily branched and tufted.
▸ Dust lichen: Intricately attached powdery granules.
▸ Scale lichen: Tiny lobes that form overlapping colonies.
▸ Club lichen: Upright cylindrical stems sparsely branched or without branches.
Although lichens don’t have showy petals or fragrant flowery centers known as stigma, wildlife finds them not without purpose. In the insect world, some moth and butterfly larva gorge themselves on lichens. Reindeer (caribou) graze on them during their long migration across the Arctic tundra. The northern flying squirrel uses lichens for nesting material, food, and as a valuable water source during winter months. Even hummingbirds find lichens useful, and use them to make their tiny nests.
Various cultures around the world have used lichens for famine food, and a food ingredient; some cultures even consider lichens as a delicacy; lichens are also used for medicine. It is important to note, however, that most lichens are indigestible to humans, some are even slightly toxic, and others are quite poisonous such as yellow lichens.
Contrary to some beliefs, lichens and mosses are not parasites, and do not harm trees, shrubs, and other plants. Lichens (and mosses) have no roots, and feed solely on oxygen, mineral-laden moisture, and sunlight. Recently, a friend of mine was beside himself, convinced that his apple trees were sick because they had lichens growing on their trunks. He insisted that lichens had bored into their trunks, and had done the same to his metal roof! He was rather adamant about it, but I assured him that if his trees were sick, it wasn’t because of lichens. Looking closely at the photos, they showed that the bark had actually grown around the lichens. As for the metal roof, it had existing erosion where debris collected, which gave the lichens a holdfast. As the lichens grew, they grew through the openings making it look as if they’d punched through the metal. Still, my friend wasn’t convinced, so I concluded that if lichens and mosses were harmful to trees and other plants that all the trees and plants in all the forests would be dead. I think my words got through that time.
It is late winter, and what was likely the last snowstorm of the season had come and gone a week ago. In a few more weeks, western trilliums will send up tender green shoots through nutrient rich humus. Until then, I reach for my Galco hand lens; a single glass 3x orb with a protective leather sheath attached to a lanyard, and slip it over my head. I do the same with my camera, macro lens attached, and head to the woods in search of more lichens. After all, they are wildflowers too!
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