Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bright Lichens Under Gray Skies

The sky is bleak today, mood-changing after the bright winter sun of past weeks. Snow fell last night, turning to rain by morning. At midday Bella and I roamed about at one of our nearby haunts. I trudged along, focused inward and seeing little around me, as the gray skies merged with the damp woods and the slush underfoot. Meanwhile, Bella, oblivious or carefree to the change in weather, plunged under trees and ran back and forth through the field.

On the way back to the car I suddenly noticed the lichens. The sweeping view through the wetland flooded by beaver exposed a forest of red maples covered in bright (at least beneath today's gray sky) green lichens. The lichens appeared unexpectedly, but of course they've been there all along. I have walked by this wetland dozens of times, listening to the trees and birds, looking for animal tracks, peering into the stream. Today, distracted with other thoughts, my eyes wandered, until I suddenly saw the lichens. Much like those 3-d images that instantly come into view after you cross your eyes and let them them float around the image. Fortunately I could see the lichens without crossing my eyes.

Here were all these lichens, in their spring-like greens, clasping the tree trunks. Lichens are two different plant forms -- an alga and a fungus -- living together in a shared partnership. The alga produces the food through photosynthesis and the fungi provides protection and nutrients. Sometimes there is a third partner, a cyanobacterium, or blue-green algae. The fungus gives the lichen its shape and its name.

New Hampshire may have more than 500 different species of lichens, although only a couple hundred have been identified. Lichens can be crusty, leafy, or shrubby. I know the British Soldiers, with its scarlet red fruiting bodies that are thought to resemble the British Revolutionary War uniforms. They brighten our split rail fence along the perennial bed. Perhaps a new name for this particular lichen would be more suitable for this organism that is really two living together and sharing their respective resources.

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