Jane Adams delves into the peculiar world of lichen, revealing a vibrant, year-round splash of colour in the UK’s landscapes, even on the darkest days
This week, nature reminded me that even its tiniest wonders still have the capacity to surprise and amaze. I had been leaning on an old gate, watching a mother roe deer and her two youngsters. Since June, her fawn’s coats have morphed from camouflaged caramel swirls to the soft beige that now matches her own. Turning to leave, something caught my eye. Sprouting from the rotten wood of the gatepost were tiny cups on stalks, like miniature golf tees. For a while, I lost myself in this Lilliputian ecosystem raised four-feet above the ground, a place so intricate and delicate, yet completely beyond my comprehension – like peering into an alien world. Back home, and having taken lots of photographs, I identified the stalks as apothecia, the reproductive hubs of lichens, ready to release their spores.
Lichens are weird
These strange organisms aren’t plants. Instead they’re a mashup of fungus and alga and/or cyanobacterium. And with more than 1,800 recorded species in the UK – 710 of which grow in Dorset – it’s surprising we don’t notice lichens more. Not only do they grow on pretty much any undisturbed natural substance including stone, wood and bark, but they’ll also happily wander across metal, glass and even plastics. The fungus bit makes up roughly 95 per cent of the lichen and provides the structure, and the alga and/or cyanobacterium provide the nourishment, through photosynthesis.
Since then, of course, I’ve been noticing lichens everywhere. White blotchy ones, like paint splatters on walls. Bright orange ones creeping over gravestones. Some like green and yellow coral growing on bark, while other species hang like verdant tinsel from twigs.
Our trees may have lost their autumn leaves, but lichens keep their glowing colours year round. So if you’re looking for something a little bit different, something that glows on the bleakest of winter days, keep an eye out for lichens – and lose yourself in their other-worldly magic.
The British Lichen Society britishlichensociety.org.uk
Some fantastic photographs of Dorset lichens (and other local wildlife) on Jenny Seawright’s website dorsetnature.co.uk
Mike Sutcliffe’s photos and help with identification of British Lichens: