Wild Wonders: Lichens

By Summer Swallow

My family and I are photographers, and we have been for as long as I can remember. I enjoy time spent taking an absurd amount of photos of the same thing in hopes of the ever-elusive perfect shot – where ingredients like angle, subject, and lighting come together in the right measure to produce that one-of-a-kind image. I have far more plant photos on my phone than anything else – such obedient subjects, for I can rely on them to stand still!

During these winter months, fungi and lichen are abundant and fascinating. Did you know that lichens are actually a community of organisms living together? When we touch lichen growing atop a rock or tree trunk, we are touching the fungal body. Notice its green color? This is an algae or cyanobacteria that does the job of photosynthesis by harnessing the power of the sun and creating food for the lichen. Recent studies have revealed that there are yeasts and bacteria that also contribute to this community of organisms, debunking the prior understanding of lichen being a simple relationship between a fungus and an algae.

Here are four reasons why lichen are worth knowing: 

  • They’re an important food source for animals especially in northern latitudes where other food sources may be more scarce.
  • They’re excellent as bird nesting material since they naturally have antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.
  • They help to regulate water moving through the ecosystem by absorbing rain water and slowly dispersing it into the ecosystem.
  • They absorb toxins or pollution directly through their body that are present in the air or water, making them reliable indicators of air quality: more lichen means healthier air!

While I nerd out on what I notice and wonder about these fungal friends in the moment, knowing who they are is a bonus layer of knowledge that deepens my understanding of these wintertime wonders. However, accurately identifying fungi and lichen is challenging, so I enjoy getting help from others that know more than I, through the free community-science platform, iNaturalist.

This easy to use platform allows me to upload my photos with location information and any notes. This information is then shared with a global community of scientists, naturalists, and nature enthusiasts who help crowdsource the ID of what I’ve found. This collaborative identification process allows folks from around the world to offer identification suggestions, share resources, and access the beauty of nature anywhere regardless of where they live.

I highly recommend you try out iNaturalist today! Your contributions provide valuable data for professional scientists around the globe. Coming up on April 28-30 is a friendly annual competition known as the City Nature Challenge. Consider joining us at Pepperwood, for this long weekend event of making nature observations!

Can you identify any of the lichens pictured below, based on their description?

Golden hair lichen (Teloschistes flavicans). This lichen’s color varies from pale yellow to reddish orange. It tends to grow in tufts or clusters on entangled branches. Small orange disks, its apothecia, are the reproductive structures that contain its spores.

Lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii). This beauty became California’s state lichen in 2016. It has a distinctive lace-like appearance, but its branches are actually flat. It’s often confused with beard lichens (genus Usnea), but these have round branches.

Pixie cup lichen (genus Cladonia). These beauties are in the family Cladoniaceae, which can be found around the world. Cladoniaceae is one of the largest lichen-forming fungi families with more than 500 species described. It showcases red dots, which are actually its apothecia, where it houses millions of spores.

Tube lichen (genus Hypogymnia). This common genus of lichen, found in a variety of habitats throughout California, is hollow inside! If you were to break open one of its branches, in addition to finding it hollow you’d notice the color of the interior wall, which can help identify the species!


  1. Liesel Kangas says:

    I loved all the details and pictures of Lichen!

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