The Nature Nerd

Focus on: Lichens in the Northwoods


Pictured are several kinds of lichen on a Northwoods tree. Submitted photo.

Pictured are several kinds of lichen on a Northwoods tree. Submitted photo.

Lichen is weird. Really weird. A valid question is, what is lichen? That is a question difficult to answer in 500 words or less!

Lichens are common. They are variously colored lifeforms that grow on the trunks of trees and a number of other surfaces. Sometimes they grow on boulders, ledge-rock, soil, or even on old buildings. They stand out more during the winter because they add colors and patterns to our snowy Northwoods. They are hardy forms of life that cope well with winter.

Often lichens are mistaken for moss, which they are not. Lichens are lifeforms that are a mixture of certain fungi and algae that live in close association with each other. They live in an arrangement sometimes called symbiosis. The fungus acts as a root system while the algae produce carbohydrates as an energy source with the aid of sunshine. Most of the volume of a lichen consists of the fungus. The fungus resembles that in mushrooms and mold. The algae consist of single plant cells living among the fungal cells. That’s a very simplistic description of lichens, but it is the best I can do without going way over 500 words!

The colors that lichen add to our Northwoods vary from grayish-green to bright yellow or gold and sometimes even red. Some are multicolored. Most grow as thin films or coatings on other surfaces. Sometimes they resemble a coat of paint. Others grow as moss-like (though they are not moss) clumps or wooly clusters.

Examples of the more robust forms include reindeer moss (which is not a moss) or goat’s beard. Another moss-like (though not a moss) lichen goes by the common name of British Soldiers because part of the lichen is bright red, reminding one of Redcoats. Speaking of color, I cannot resist mentioning that in Florida there is a hot pink lichen!

So, if lichen is not a moss, what makes moss so different? A moss is a plant, period.

It does not have a fungal part. Moss is made-up of many cells, whereas the algae within a lichen are single celled. Most mosses are distinctly green, most are dark green.

Should you become interested in lichens, you live in the right place. Our Northwoods have a particularly large number of lichens, several hundred, at least. Maple trees are especially favored by lichens; a single maple tree can host up to twenty different kinds! Evergreen trees have fewer types of lichen, but most are unique to evergreens. Stones and other surfaces have yet other species.

We tend to overlook lichen. However, lichen is important to many animals. Some kinds of lichen are eaten by many animals including flying squirrels, deer, and in some parts of the world caribou and reindeer. The nests of some birds are made partly of lichen. Many smaller animals eat lichen as well.

Lichen is interesting to examine from time to time. Not only are the colors interesting, but lichen forms many interesting shapes and patterns. Some form lacy patterns, some form rings, other are like tiny shrubs. Lichen is well worth some time for examination.

Jerry McCormick lives in Virginia, MN. He is a retired natural resources professional and a self-described nature nerd.

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