Feeling a little like Dr Who approaching a strange new planet, I squinted through the lens at a magnificent, highly complex world – a world of bushy frondy shrubby things and crusty flat spreading patches, a world of what looked like luxuriant leafy plants of intricate and convoluted shapes, in an infinite range of different colours of green and gold. This was the World of the Lichen.
I was at Ilfracombe. North Devon, about to embark on a lichen hunt, led by experts Maxine Putnam and Tony Holwill, and organised by the Devon Wildlife Trust local group.soon became immersed in trying to identify the different types – looking for little black spots, wiggly white edges, thin lines cutting across the leaves, little trumpets… and jam tarts. I was told the fruits of a particular lichen looked just like jam tarts, and I was thrilled when I actually found some. Trouble was – everything I looked at afterwards seemed to have jam tarts all over it. And to make things even more difficult, there were no common names on my list – only Latin ones:
Lichens are special. They are not mosses; in fact they are not even plants, but a symbiosis of fungus and algae. They are not parasitic – moss and lichens do no harm to the tree or whatever they are growing on. As we walked around, I noticed how different types of lichen grew on different parts of the tree – and Maxine reminded me of the subtle differences in air temperature, humidity, sunlight and a myriad other factors that would make up the perfect mini-niche for a particular species. I was utterly amazed, as I always am, when looking closely at nature.
Now, a couple of days later, I can remember clearly the physical descriptions and appearances, and also one or two of the names – but not which goes with which! To be honest, I can only match up with any confidence the name of one particular yellowish lichen, Candelaria concolor – a name I shall be sure to drop into my conversation at the earliest opportunity.