Lichen: Lessons from Nature

When the tumult of water across the lands of Lake County subsides, and the cotton-puff clouds sit complacently above, what better time to find and focus on life forms like lichen. Wetness adds wonder to small things, changing it. The transformation from desiccation to plump, pliable greenery is remarkable. Nature never holds back, and there is always something new to meet the eye; and an already gorgeous sight is improved with a closer look.

Discovering the lives of lichens can become habit-forming, especially after they have tapped energy from the clouds. Lean down for a closer look, or better yet, take out your hand lens and be prepared to have your mind blown! Just as a hike with an archaeologist whose trained eye discerns the artifact from the everyday pebble, soon, you take note of the lovely lichens across the countryside.

Lichen has learned to become itself with a symbiotic relationship of algae and cyanobacteria, all positioned amid fungus. Lichens can hold profuse color variations, coming in hues including green, red, orange and yellow. Fragments of net-like greenery decorate the trail. Lichens are leafy, crispy, gelatinous or even shrub-like in the natural world. These distinctive organisms hold no roots to absorb humidity or nutrients as typical plants do. They evolved to produce their own food through photosynthesis and gain moisture and minerals from the environment around them.

You can come across them growing on rocks, fence posts and live trees and plants; and they are not considered to be parasitic. A whopping six percent of our planet’s surface holds a form of lichen, creating a visual feast. You will, no doubt spot crowns of colorful lichen on boulders when they pop into view with their jaunty vibrant orange, pale yellow, black or other surprising colors.

Through the process known as lichenometry, these enduring growths can be used to date events, and have turned out to be some of nature’s longest living organisms. Lichen usually beat out other life forms, growing the first thing after a disturbance such as a landslide.

Net-like lace lichen, or Ramalina menziesi, grows up to three feet long, and was designated by Governor Brown as the California State Lichen. It is often confused with Spanish moss, or usneoides. Lace lichen is one of 1,900 lichen species found in California and 14,000 in the world. It flies like a luxurious lacy flag from many oak species, from Baja California on up to southern Alaska.

Deer love to browse on the minty green strips, and birds construct nests of lace lichen. Many species of lichens are essential for the lives of insects and birds. Environmentalists consider lichen as a determining factor in air pollution, it’s used in medicines, dyes and fragrances as well. Naturalist E. O. Wilson said, ” Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.”

We have much to learn from adaptable, complex lichens. They are multi-tasking food producers who can thrive in a multitude of conditions on rock, fences, soil, bark and more. They are patient, remaining dormant until fog, rain or dew allow them to resume their lichen lives, growing and thriving as though that was the norm. Lichen lessons are silent and not always obvious, but lichen are impressive little teachers.

For more information on lichens, visit the California Lichen Society pages:


Kathleen Scavone

Kathleen Scavone, MA., is a retired educator who has resided in beautiful Lake County for over 45 years. She freelances fiction, poetry, nature writing, curriculum ideas, and local history. She writes for The Press Democrat, Napa Valley Register, News From Native California, Green Prints, etc. She has published three books, a play and a poetry chapbook. The second edition of her locally set historical novella, People of the Water- a novella of the events leading to the Bloody Island Massacre of 1850 is available in local museums and stores, as well as on Amazon.com and IngramSpark in both paperback and e-book formats. She has written Anderson Marsh State Historic Park- A Walking History, Prehistory, Flora and Fauna tour of a California State Park, and Native Americans of Lake County. Kathleen is a photographer and potter. Her other interests include hiking, assisting on archaeology digs, travel, gardening and reading.

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