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Nature Talks: Taking a liken to ‘lichen’

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    It’s believed that these lichen are called British soldiers because the red caps (apothecium) are reminiscent of the hats worn by the “redcoats.”

Published April 06. 2018 11:43PM

Did you hear About Annie & Freddy?

One day, Annie Algae and Freddy Fungus met and they took a likin’ (lichen) to each other.

Their relationship went out on a limb and finally it ended up on the rocks.

To explain what lichen are, someone created this little story to help people remember the two organisms that make up lichen and it also helps explain where one might find them growing.

There are more than 3,600 species of lichen in North America.

There are four basic forms: crustose (flat, scaly growths); squamulose (pebblelike growths); foliose (resembling leaves); and fruticose (tubelike branches). Lichens take a long time to grow, and with some species that growth is as little as a millimeter per year. To put that into perspective … a dime is 1 millimeter thick. Considered to be the oldest living organisms on the planet, lichen are interesting organisms.

They are diverse, adaptable, functional, and little about them is understood. By absorbing pollutions and toxins, they play an important role as biological indicators. Although able to tolerate less than favorable environments, some lichen are quite sensitive to air pollution. Lichen retain the chemicals they absorb from air and water over periods of tens to hundreds of years.

Annie’s job is to photosynthesize and provide nutrients for Freddy. Freddy‘s job is to provide shelter and water.

By working together each contributes something to allow the other to survive. Lichen can survive heat, cold, drought as well as other difficult environments. They live on bare soil, tree bark, woody debris, and rocks, as well as on rusty metal, plastic, tombstones, and old abandoned cars.

The Jim Thorpe Area School District fourth-graders meet us up at Hickory Run State Park and spend time out on Boulder Field as part of their field trip instead of coming out to the center. When out on those rocks we tell students that there are types of lichen that can be eaten.

Franklin Klock is quick to point out that while this lichen is edible it doesn’t mean it tastes good. One in particular, rock tripe, looks like old chewing gum stuck to the side of the boulder. There are always a few students who want to peel it off the boulders and taste it. The rule is if you remove it from the surface of the boulder it must be eaten and there is no spitting it out. Nature doesn’t waste and we shouldn’t either.

I can attest to the fact that this rock tripe tastes like dirt. Don’t ask me how I know what dirt tastes like.

After the students headed back to school I made a stop at my favorite cemetery to take a few photos. Much to my delight, my favorite lichen was growing on a tree stump just inside the cemetery.

My favorite lichen? “British soldiers.” It’s believed that these lichen are called British soldiers because the red caps are reminiscent of the hats worn by the “redcoats.”

Lichen are a food source for many types of animals, including insects, voles, turkey, deer, caribou and reindeer. In addition, some bird and squirrel species use lichen not only as material for building their nests and burrows, but as food in the winter when nothing else is available.

Lichen have sometimes been eaten or brewed as tea in some cultures, but the use of lichen for their decorative and medicinal purposes has been much more common in human history.

Some lichen are eaten by humans. A kind of lichen, which is called Iwatake in Japanese and Seogi in Korean, is collected from cliffs, and used in various Korean and Japanese foods. Lichen have a high level of acid.

Care must be taken, as there are at least two kinds of lichen that are toxic. Lichen are used today in toothpastes, deodorants, clothing dyes, salves and other products. Because of their unique ability to process a wide range of chemicals, they are being researched for their antibiotic properties.

There’s plenty to be likin’ about lichen!

The Carbon County Environmental Education Center is located at 151 E. White Bear Drive, Summit Hill. Call 570-645-645-8597 or visit

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