Beyond Your Backyard: Liking the Lichen

Wondering how you can possibly top last years costume of being one of the clam fam and dressing as a Minnesota mollusk? Well I’ve got just the thing for you this Halloween. But first, a persuasive introduction…

I’ve been listening to Braiding Sweetgrass on the recommendation of your very own Katie Feterl. It’s been on my reading list for quite some time and what better excuse to finally start “reading” than when you’re home concussed (reading in quotes because I’m listening to it on audiobooks). I was struck by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s  description of the relationship between an alga and a fungus and how in times of stress they form a symbiotic relationship—the result of which are lichens. Joined species so intermingled that it is difficult to tell them apart.

Who would’ve thought that these sometimes brittle little beings that provide a satisfying crunch if you should happen to sit on a rock they’re inhabiting play such a vital role in our world? So what are these curious beasties and what exactly are they doing?

  • When an alga and fungus come together to form a lichen, they sort of get superpowers. This relationship allows the water-loving algae to live in any environment (even in hot, dry climates). The fungus protects the algae and in return the algae photosynthesizes and provides food for the fungus. (Is anyone else hearing Spice Girls “2 become 1” playing in the background?)
  • Lichens act like fancy rock sponges, absorbing air, water and nutrients. They also absorb pollutants, which scientists can extract and get a measure of air quality and other toxins in our environment. Lichens are literally helping us understand how safe (or unsafe) our world is.
  • Lichens are helpers all around. They offer food, shelter, and shelter-building material for wildlife like elk, deer, birds, and insects.
  • Some lichens are edible and have been used by Native Americans when food was scarce.
  • People have used lichens for dyes, clothing, and decoration. Fancy lichen hat anyone?
  • Lichens are used in all kinds of commercial products like toothpaste, deodorant, perfume, and even paint. One species of lichen has antibiotic properties and is being researched for the development of prescription drugs!  Who knew?!

After reading this list, I can’t think of one thing not to like about lichens. That’s why I’m convinced the only costume choice this year is a two for 1 double costume of none other than a lichen. It only seems right that after a year of separation we should come together this Halloween with our favorite buddy and link arms to trick or treat our way into every Minnesotans heart—who doesn’t like a lichen?

Lichen along the shore of Lake Superior in Gooseberry State Park, Katie Feterl.

#ilikelichens #lichen #neature