I have to start by saying that within 30 seconds of beginning to research this topic, I have come to realize that I am wildly misinformed about the thing that I call lichen.
Lichen (pronounced ly-kin) in my world has always referred to the Grinch style green plant that hangs from trees. My thoughts on Lichen have been limited. I thought that:
- lichen is relatively rare in the wilderness
- it occurs most frequently at higher elevations, in the winter and in climates with higher levels of humidity
- it’s fun to pronounce incorrectly — we call it litch-en and that makes me smile…a lot
What I have been calling lichen all this time is only a type of lichen. This type of lichen is actually classified as Alectoria sarmentosa. People call it Witch’s Hair–Makes sense!
Witch’s hair grows on conifer branches in areas with higher levels of moisture and sunlight. It is most prominent in the tops of trees, but can persist on lower branches as long as the sunlight makes its way through the tree’s canopy. Witch’s hair spreads from tree to tree by way of the wind and in areas where this type of lichen is common, you could find 1 ton per acre!
Deer and caribou feed on the Alectoria sarmentosa during the winter when other green plants are not as readily available. The lichen will often fall to the ground in a wind storm and frozen snow aids in their ability to reach the lichen at higher levels.
We’ve established that witch’s hair is a type of lichen but, what is lichen exactly?
Lichen are relatively complex life forms that are non-mobile (thallophytic) and non-vascular (meaning they do not circulate water like the stereotypical plant). Two separate organisms work in a symbiotic relationship to create lichen: fungi and algae. Fungi is the primary contributor in the relationship and it provides many of the lichen’s characteristics. The algae gives the lichen its color (usually green or blue). There are 15,000 different species of lichen.
The lichen’s “body-type” is called its thallus which basically establishes that it doesn’t have a stem, roots or leaves like the stereotypical plant. Rhizines, or hair like structures, anchor the lichen to its substrate (which is just whatever the lichen is anchored to).
Three main types:
Crustose lichen: Some lichen form a thin “crust-like” covering that is attached tightly to its substrate. Crustose lichen are known for their bright, vibrant colors.
Fruticose lichen: Many lichen are characterized by their distinguished “sides.” There is a clear top and bottom of the organism. They can be thin and flat, leafy, or characterized by bumps and ridges.
Foliose lichen: When a lichen is only loosely attached to its substrate, this is categorized as a foliose lichen (including witch’s hair)!
I was surprised to learn that lichen is used for practical purposes quite often.
- Animals and humans use/have used lichen as a fibrous building material in shelters.
- Humans often use lichen as a dye for fabrics. They can be mixed with another material (like pine sap) or burnt down to an ash to be used for their bright red, blue, yellow or green colors.
- Many types of lichen can provide significant nutrition in times of need. It sounds like foraging animals eat it regularly, and many Native American tribes have been known to utilize lichen as food when necessary. WARNING: Some types of lichen are poisonous. “Wolf lichen” has been used as a poison for wolves and a group of 300 migrating elks were found dead after eating “ground lichen.” I’d consider studying hard before deciding to ingest!
- Several lichens have been utilized in the pharmaceutical industry for their antibiotic properties. These properties are also often used in products like perfumes, deodorant, salves, extracts, and toothpaste.
So! What I have been calling lichen is only a type of lichen (witch’s hair). I won’t call myself a lichen expert at the conclusion of this research, but now I know exactly what I’ve been looking at. I bet I’ll be asking questions about other types of lichen this weekend. Let the never ending cycle of learning begin.
Happy hiking my friends!
- What are lichens? from the National Forest Service
- Lichens from Britannica Online
- What are lichens? from Live Science
- Witch’s Hair from the Slater Museum of Natural History