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For the Love of Lichen

By Paul James

Lichen are cool. They’re not a plant. Or an animal. But they are living things. And they can be found growing practically everywhere, from the Sahara Desert to tropical rain forests to Antarctica. With great names like Old Gray Dust and Curly Biscuits, they’re also a food source for numerous creatures, and are said to be the biblical manna from heaven. But what are lichen, exactly?

Basically, a lichen is a fungus with an alga as its roommate. The two live together in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus provides the structural component of their relationship — the home, if you will — and the alga brings home the bacon by photosynthesizing and producing the sugars that sustain the fungus.

Lichen create a dazzling variety of textures and colors and shapes and forms, especially when viewed up close on the surfaces they attach themselves to, which are known as substrates. Common substrate materials include rocks and concrete, unpainted wood, tree bark, and soil, but lichens have been found growing on everything from old leather shoes to cars. And by the way, lichen that grow on trees and shrubs don’t take nutrients from the plants, so don’t panic if you see them growing on limbs and branches.

So what purpose do lichen serve? Well again, they’re an important food source for all kinds of critters, from tiny insects to hummingbirds, squirrels, deer, caribou, moose — and yes, even humans, especially back when food sources were scarce. They’ve been used for centuries to create dyes and perfumes, and today they’re being examined for their antiseptic qualities.

But I just think they’re cool. And if you’ll spend time looking for them, both in the wild and in your own backyard, I think you’ll agree.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

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