What are Lichens?

If you’ve always wanted to learn how to read a landscape, lichens are like words on a page – their patterns of diversity can tell you about climate (including nearly invisible microclimates), air quality, and habitat dynamics.

Lichens may seem passive compared to their more active fungal brethren, but lichens are storytellers – and stories are the basis of our realities, our behaviors, our perspectives.

Lichens are speakers of the stones, speakers of the forests, speakers of the desert soils, speakers of climate and of spatial time.

Lecanora sierrae, a ubiquitous lichen on granite and volcanic rocks in the Sierra Nevada mountains and Great Basin desert.

Lichens as Symbiosis

The lichen symbiosis is composed of a fungus (the heterotroph) and an algae and/or cyanobacteria (the autotroph). In the lichen, the autotroph absorbs photons from the sun and stores this energy in the chemical bonds of molecules.

In turn the fungus, the heterotroph, takes those molecules and uses the stored solar energy to form more molecules, creating a dizzying array of pigments, chemicals, and proteins.

We’re all like lichens – our right brain comes up with novel ideas inspired by the muses, imagination, the spark. And our left brain works with those ideas, building, transforming. Together, they create.

Cross section of a lichen - the green is the algae (the autotroph) and the clear/gray/white is the fungus (the heterotroph). Together they make their own little ecosystem, exchanging gases, nutrients, inspiration, and their special talents of being. (Candelaria concolor, photo by Jason Hollinger)

Further Reading

If you like my vibe, check out the chapter I wrote “Radical Lichenology” in the social justice art tome Radical Mycology by Peter McCoy (2016). If you’re in the northeastern U.S. region, Delmarva Lichens by James Lendemer and myself is also a great resource. For a downloadable resources, including an Alpine Lichens Guide and Great Basin Desert Lichens research papers, check out my research areas.