An introduction to Lichen: its diversity, beauty, and value to human society

Lichen are unique organisms in our midst, and they grow on every continent on earth; on soil, trees, dead wood, stone, and other material structures. They can be found at sea level, surviving salt tides, and at all elevations through to alpine altitudes and climates.

Often overlooked for their delicate beauty and their inherent value, they are an ‘indicator’ species, which means the presence or absence of lichen growth indicates the health of eco-systems. Some species are considered amongst the oldest of living things on the planet.

Identifying and mapping the presence of lichen is an activity that brings delight and knowledge, and the potential for directing human activity in all our communities, towards greater wisdom. As for all living organisms, as habitats become more polluted, so lichen species are threatened. Many in the UK are in such decline as to be declared ‘rare’ or ‘threatened’

Lichen is pronounced ‘like-en’ or ‘litchen’ (to sound like ‘kitchen’) and both pronunciations are correct. Categorised under the fungus genus, they are actually a combination of species. Since 1867, they have been thought to be a symbiosis of fungus and algae, and the word symbiosis was coined to describe lichen. At this current time, developments in electron microscope technology show that a bacterium is also present in all species examined so far; so lichen are best described as a mutualistic organism, with each of the components offering some benefit to the others.

I became more aware of their diversity in recent years, after a lifelong appreciation of their beauty especially in Devon woodlands, Dartmoor and along the South West coastlines, where I spend leisure time. The presence of a good camera, or the camera on a smart phone, lends itself to looking at the finer details of their features: revealing worlds of beauty and fascination.

At a later point, I discovered that some fallen, storm-torn lichens as well as some which grow in the woodpile, lend themselves to lovely textile dyes; further studying them online, I have discovered that there are some species in our midst which offer medicinal properties: although these specimens are rare, and under increasing threat from air pollution and environmental degradation.

I began identifying different varieties of lichen with the same enthusiasm that my father identified butterflies and moths, and by which others seek out and identify birds, or wild flowers: and increasingly compelled to pursue identifying them at every possible opportunity. Without a biology or science background, I have found the British Lichen Society website ( www.britishlichensociety.org.uk) to be an excellent source of information, as well as many other excellent online resources. On contacting Dartmoor National Park for more information about local lichen education and information, I found out that

1) there are several areas of Dartmoor which are protected, and where no lichen may be gathered, even that which has fallen from its source; this may apply to other areas outside of the moor, too; and

2) there appears to be a dearth of local lichen resources and active enthusiasts in the South West.

Keen to find others locally who share my passion for lichen, and its place in ecology, ethnobotany, and culture, I am starting lichen clubs/lichen walks/lichen talks around the South West, with view to nurturing more enthusiasts and perhaps activists, and hopefully enticing some experts and academics ‘out of the woodwork’ too: to create an active network of ‘lichen whisperers’.

Those who run The Woodland Presents in North Woods have generously offered space at The Glade for a series of lichen influenced activities: I will be holding two Lichen Club meetings this summer (more, if there is demand) for the purposes of locating and identifying different types of lichen in the immediate environment, and elsewhere.

In the autumn I will be running a training day for group leaders and eco-activists who wish to learn the more advanced skills of how to monitor lichen diversity for the purpose of national/local air quality monitoring and recording.

The first Lichen Club meeting will be held on Sunday 23rd June from 1.30 pm (The Glade, North Woods, Dartington)

All are welcome (free/donation)

Lucy Lepchani is an amateur lichenologist and ‘lichen whisperer’ who has become passionately interested in this class of organisms and its silent but magnificent presence amongst us. She also works in the arts, education, and coaching/therapy professions (www.lucylepchani.wordpress.com).

 

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