Friday, December 9, 2016

Lichens: A Burst of Color on a Dark Day

The lichens have awoken.
Lichens, moss, and mushrooms in the Palisades.
Photo by PBM. Used with permission.

 Late autumn, almost winter. The trees are bare and the sky is grey. A light mist falls. New York City seems devoid of life. Scaffolding drips and trains run late.

Grey day on the Hudson River.
Photo by PBM. Used with permission.

Across the Hudson River, a few miles away from the dead-grey of the city in the Palisades Interstate Park in New Jersey delicate greens and specks of mustard yellow coat rocks and trees in a quietly vibrant layer.

Lichens on a rock in the Palisades.
Photo by PBM. Used with Permission.

On a cheerful sunny day, the same lichen appear as a crusty dust on a rock, but in the dismal rain these creatures burst forth.

My rainy hike in the Palisades reminded me of my love for lichen and then I realized something rather embarrassing: I knew relatively nothing about my favorite organisms. The lichens I saw inspired me to learn more about them.
Lichens on a tree in the Palisades.
Photo by PBM. Used with permission.

Lichens are intricate beings, and before we can delve into their complexities, let’s start with the basics.

What Are Lichens?

Lichens are the product of a mutually-beneficial relationship between fungi (the mycobiont) and algae or cyanobacteria (the photobiont).

What does this mean?

Basically, a fungus and an algae or a cyanobacteria join forces for better living, and in the process, they form what we call a lichen.

Lichens on a gravestone at Cortland Rural Cemetery.
Photo by PBM. Used with permission.

Not all fungi and algae/cyanobacteria are well-suited for the lichen life. For fungi which thrive in a lichen relationship, the process of selecting a worthy photobiont is a ruthless one.

A fungi will try to form a partnership with any nearby algae/cyanobacteria. As the partnership is forming, the fungi try to kill off the algae/cyanobacteria. Any algae/cyanobacteria that survives the attempted slaughter is deemed a suitable partner by the fungi and the two will form a lichen together.

What do Lichens Look Like?

Internal Structure

In primitive lichens, the cells of the mycobionts and photobionts are thrown together in a miscellaneous mishmash, but more advanced lichens have distinct layers with specific functions.

Lichen diagram by blog author.
External Appearance

Lichens are strange hybrids which look like neither fungi nor algae/cyanobacteria. There are three main types of lichen: 

fruticose lichens, 
Fruticose lichen photo by Jason Hollinger. A creative commons image.

foliose lichens, 
Foliose lichen photo by Norbert Nagel. A creative commons image.

and crustose lichens.

Crustose lichen photo by Roger Griffith. A creative commons image.
Then, there are countless variations on these basic types.

The physical characteristics of lichens are influenced by lichen acids, byproducts of lichen metabolism. These acids often give a lichen its characteristic color.

Lichens in the sun look almost completely different than lichens on a rainy day. Why? Lichens shrivel up and hibernate when the air is dry to reduce water loss, they open up again to soak up water when the air is moist. Wet days are the best days to observe lichens in all their glory.


Lichens absorb water indiscriminately without filtering it. This means they also absorb all the pollutants in the water. Often these poisonous pollutants are too much for the poor lichens to handle, which is why there aren’t many lichens in large cities. The lichens that survive intense pollution tend to be small since their already slow growth is stunted by pollution.
Lichen on a NYC street tree. Photo by blog author.
Lichen Reproduction

Some of the lichens I noticed on my hike were covered in dark dots. These dots are a common type of spore-producing growth called disc-shaped apothecia produced by the fungal partner of the lichen for sexual reproduction. Lichens produce spores all year round, and like lichens themselves, the spore production sites are mainly active when wet.
Lichens in the Palisades with spore-producing growths.
Photo by PBM. Used with permission.

The odd thing about lichens is since they are a combination of two organisms, only the fungal part of the lichen can reproduce sexually. The spores the fungi release may grow as a pure fungus, they may die, or they may find a photobiont partner and become lichens, possibly a different type of lichen then their parent.

Lichens also reproduce asexually when small pieces of the mother organism break off and are carried away animals, wind, or water to a new home. To speed along asexual reproduction, lichens produce isidia—small outgrowths which break off easily—and soredia—powdery granules of a few cells which can blow and float to a new location.

Lichen Longevity

Once a lichen does set up shop, it can live for thousands of years. Lichens grow incredibly slowly, so it is a good thing that they can live so long. One lichen in northern Sweden is thought to be over 9,000 years old!

Lichens on a gravestone at Cortland Rural Cemetery.
Photo by PBM. Used with permission.
Now that I’ve learned some lichen basics I hope to start identifying the species of lichens I see. If you know what species any of the lichens in the photos from this post are, please let me know in the comments!


  1. Fascinating! Two weeks ago before the first snow fell, I was admiring the lichen-covered rocks on East Rainy Butte in North Dakota, where my grandfather settled when he immigrated from Swedish Sápmi (Tärendö). Very little grows on the windswept buttes but lichen and sage. I am interested in learning more about the ancient lichen you mention in Sweden. Do you have a link? Julie

  2. Hello Julie! Thanks for reading. I love harsh landscapes that have little life but lichen as well. I read about the ancient lichen in a book called Lichens by Oliver Gilbert published by HarperCollins in 2000. Gilbert only mentions the ancient lichen briefly however. If I find more information about this lichen I'll let you know!

  3. hmm where did my comment go? I was saying how I have been fascinated and taking pics of this winter's lichens and moss covered trees. This post was very informative, thanks!

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post Cris! Lichen are the most noticeable in the winter when all the green plants are gone and the trees are bare. I love photographing them as well!

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