The Buzz

Things we love: Those lovely lichens

(Photo via Shutterstock)

About this series: While many people love nature, different people love different aspects of it. One may have a soft spot for flowers, while another gravitates toward a particular animal. And yet for others, it's all about the scenery. "Things We Love" explores those jaw-dropping parts of nature that one person finds particularly special. In this edition, Angela Rafac, an interpretive naturalist at Four Rivers Environmental Education Center, tells us why she loves lichens.

What is there not to love about lichen? That is the real question. The more I learn, the more my appreciation grows. I could go on and on and on, but I will sum it up simply: I love lichen because it is strange, strong, sensitive and striking! 

Lichen results from a strange symbiotic relationship between fungus, algae and sometimes cyanobacteria. While it appears to be just one organism, this mysterious partnership has given these species independence. It is an algae sandwich with fungus as the bread. The fungus has freedom to leave its usual habitat because the algae is providing the food, and algae can leave its watery home and travel the world protected from the elements by the fungus. 

Lichen is a power duo! It is a pioneer species, braving inhabitable grounds and surfaces, slowly and patiently paving the way for diversity. How cool is that? It grows on rigid rocks, paved paths, benches and fences. You can see it everywhere! It is also strong during cold, crisp winters. Big beautiful trees shed their leaves and rest, birds fly south, mammals and reptiles hide out and wait for warmer weather. But lichen is alive and thriving no matter the temperature, even if buried under a sheet of snow.

Despite its hardiness, lichen is also extremely sensitive to its surroundings. If something is in the atmosphere, lichen absorbs it. So not only is lichen cleaning the air by absorbing pollutants, it is a bio-indicator of the pollutants and used in many air-quality monitoring programs. It’s amazing and helpful.

GET THE LOWDOWN ON LICHENS

By far, my absolute favorite thing about lichen is just how beautiful it is. Its striking colors and textures brighten landscapes. As I walk along, I see small twigs completely covered and bark and boulders blanketed with mustard yellow and minty and darker greens. Multiple species living in harmony … my delight never dwindles. Lichen is at its most brilliant when wet. On gray and gloomy days, its vibrant beauty reminds me there is so much to be grateful for.

Lovely little lifeforms

Incredibly intricate and interesting

Colorfully clinging like a crust

Harmoniously hardy and healing

Easily enlivening all environments

Naturally nourishing and noteworthy

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