Lichen: A Natural Mystery

Nov 15, 2015

Discover Nature this week and a natural mystery called lichen.

"United we stand, divided we fall". And so it is with lichens.

A lichen is made up of two unrelated organisms: a fungus and an algae. If the fungus and the algae were divided, the lichen would no longer exist. 

The fungus gives the lichen form and shape -- it also holds water and slows evaporation. The algae, a green plant, provides food for the fungus.

Lichens look like nature's living carpet and are often seen covering rocks and trees in Missouri's Ozark region.

Identified by the way they grow, lichens may have a soft, crust-like, or leafy appearance. They come in a wide variety of colors including muted greys and browns, green, bright orange, and red. They grow on almost any type of surface including bark, soil, rocks, and stones. They have even been found growing on glass, sun-bleached animal skulls, and the backs of insects!

Lichens are quite hardy and are prominent in harsh regions where few plants can survive. Slow growth and a long life are characteristic of lichens. Some arctic lichens are more than 4,000 years old!

Although most lichens are not edible, one form of lichen -- the reindeer lichen -- is edible and can be used in soup or to make jelly according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. Reindeer lichen appears as an airy-looking carpet of antler-looking tips. They are soft and pliable when they're wet, but wiry and brittle when dry. 

Be sure and know how to identify any wild edible before you attempt to consume it!

To find more information about Missouri's lichen species go online to MissouriConservation.org