What do you get if you cross fungi and algae? Lichen! How is it different than moss? Moss is a plant. That means it has stems and leaves.
Why are people standing around in 39 degree weather motionless in a meadow, staring at itty bitty bits of things with an eye loupe?
Small bits of earthy matter are placed in your hand, and you are encouraged to look deeply at it and take a good whiff of it. You see things like reproductive spores, soft stretchy flesh, and many specks of bug poop.
It’s a lichen walk! At Mt. Pisgah arboretum.
Once you really look at lichen, you start seeing it everywhere!
The people on the walk were curious.
“How long can it live?” A thousand years.
“How much does this one grow a year?” One millimeter.
“Do they change colors?” Maybe a little with changes in moisture.
Overheard: what we often call Spanish moss, is something else, and it’s related to pineapple.
The lichen can reproduce asexually, sometimes referred to as cloning. It can also reproduce sexually, with nonspecific gender assignments. Their pronouns are they, them, theirs. It’s no big deal, lichen are pretty evolved around sexual identity.
To clarify the sexy part, spores must land on a surface and encounter an algal or bacterial partner to become a lichen.
Some lichen put out an acid that keeps the moss from growing over the top of it.
Some lichen grows in loops like chains connecting and collecting water and air to live robustly. The well-being of lichen can tell us much about the air quality around us. It doesn’t stay in areas of poor air quality.
One branch we saw had six kinds of lichen on it- all together- like a lichen garden floating high on a tree.
It was a highly educated, warmly dressed group of people, many consumed with knowing the details of the life and times of lichen. They had small notebooks and wrote things down, even with gloves on. They asked questions. I was too cold but I admired the curiosity and wonder of this smart and hardy bunch of seekers peering under the oaks, in the grass, and atop the rocks.
In review: symbiotic organisms live together for the benefit of one or both. In mutualism, both partners benefit- this is lichens. In parasitism, only one partner benefits- example: mistletoe on oaks.