Written by Matt Pyster, a member of the SCA NH Americorps program – soon to be interpretive ranger at White lake and Ellacoya State Parks.
Lichen. These beautiful and oddly simplistic organisms are a focus of attention for me right now. Until recently I didn’t realize just how many types of lichen are in the forest around me. In fact, every photo in this blog post was taken on a short 4 minute walk in Bear Brook State Park, and all were within sight from the main pathway.
When fungi works synergistically with either algae or cyanobacteria (CB), we call the combination “lichen”. The fungi exists as a surface on which the algae/CB can live. In turn, the algae/CB provides the fungi with sugars that it creates through photosynthesis. Something that makes them really cool in my mind is that lichen can absorb all the water and nutrients they need…right from the air! This means they don’t have to be attached to the soil. Yup, you’ll find them growing on rocks, on branches, on telephone poles…pretty much everywhere. Here are a few photos of where I found them on my walk!
Question time… If lichen grow on trees, do they harm those trees? Would they gain anything from doing so? Think for a minute about what we learned in the last paragraph – and once you have thought about it, read on for the answer.
Lichen grow all over trees, dead and alive; however, they get water and nutrients from the air. This means they don’t need to steal nutrients from the surface they are attached to. So even though they may cover the bark of a tree, they are basically just “couch surfing” to get access to sunlight – no harm done. In fact, sometimes lichen help trees. Lichen can help prevent erosion of soil, and they can create new habitats for plants to grow in. The photo below shows an example of lichen unintentionally collecting debris and soil on top of a rock, thereby creating a microhabitat that a plant took advantage of!
One type of lichen, Rock tripe, is especially famous in US history. It has a rubbery texture, and is edible if cooked properly. In the winter of 1777 at Valley Forge, when George Washington and his men were freezing to death and running out of food, some of his men reported eating rock tripe to stay alive. Some species are considered a delicacy – but not the species GW and his men were likely eating. Delicious or disgusting, either way, it was food and helped fill the stomachs of those men.
Today, not many men are surviving off of rock tripe, but lichen are still appreciated in part for the beauty and depth they can add to the woods. I invite you to come out and see some of the diverse species and colors of lichen that color the forest here at Bear Brook State Park.