|A diversity of lichen in Brownsville, VT|
Carl Linnaeus. The Linnaeus. The guy who documented and classified a sizable chunk of Earth’s known species, the father of taxonomy, the guy you learned about in high school biology and immediately forgot, insulted one of my favorite taxonomic groups. I don’t know what the eighteenth century botanist had against Lichens, but he described them as “the poor trash of vegetation,” classified them into one genus, and paid them little attention thereafter. I speculate that his opinion of them was skewed because Lichens aren’t plants. They aren’t technically fungi either. In fact, they’re a bit of an anomaly when it comes to categorization, yet these perfectly balanced symbiotic communities are some of the strangest macro-organisms in forests, or on rocks, fence posts, roofs, and sidewalks.
|Common Greenshield (a foliose lichen)|
A single Lichen is a community: multiple organisms working together to survive. They are two to three codependent entities at any given moment. This relationship starts with the scaffolding: the part that gives Lichens their strange shape and structure, which is provided by fungi in the family Ascomycota, also know as the cup mushrooms. The thing that sets Lichens apart from the rest of the cup mushrooms is that they have essentially dropped their mycelium (the root system of a mushroom) and picked up agriculture in its stead.
|Bristly Beard Lichen|
That’s all in one lichen! None can exist without the other, but what can a fungi, an algae, and a yeast do together that other plants or mushrooms cannot do on their own? Lichen is the life-form that can grow where no plant has grown before. They are among the first organisms to colonize inorganic material like bare rocks. Take a lifeless place, a barren slab of blackened volcanic rock and try to grow something on it, without soil, scoured by sun and sea water. No ordinary plant could grow here, yet somehow, despite the extreme conditions, Lichens attach themselves and thrive.
|Smoky-eye Boulder Lichen (a crustose lichen)|
|Pixie Cup Lichen (a fruticose lichen)|