JUST ONE: Lace Lichen

If I’m going to include lichens in my “Just One” series about plants that open my eyes wider (and yes, lichens must be included!) then let the first lichen be this one.

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1.

Lovely Lace lichen

who are you?

Your Latin name, Ramalina menziesii, dances

across my lips

and hovers lightly in the air,

waiting to be explained. Your

drifting, wafting, pendulous gray-green veils

take me back to the Georgia coast, where

Spanish moss hangs languorously from massive oaks

lending mystery to the humid air. But you’re different.

Instead of wavy, branching strands like Spanish moss (which isn’t a lichen anyway, but a very odd flowering plant)

instead of long bristled cords like the Methuselah’s beard lichen

your body is a strange landscape of wonder containing

endless revelations: here

a fine fishnet of connected filaments, there

a wavy-edged ribbon with knobby antennae, there

a weightless, crooked ladder, there

a neuron dancing in the air.

As the scientist says, there’s

considerable morphological variation.

And amidst this melange of forms

always

the swing and sway, the

drape and droop of you:

an enchantment in the woods.

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2. Lace lichen on Douglas fir, within sight of the Salish Sea.
3. Wavy ribbons.

4. A crooked mesh ladder.

5. Hanging from a pine tree at California’s Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The Structure

Different theories have been proposed to explain the odd, net-like structure of Ramalina menziesii. One idea is that the perforations make the lichen less apt to break when stretched. I’ve pulled on them – they’re surprisingly elastic. The holey structure (you could say holy, too, as far as I’m concerned) is supposed to facilitate grabbing water out of the atmosphere and shedding excess heat. I’m not sure what the final word is on why Lace lichen is built the way it is. Let’s just look:

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6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

11.

Experiencing Lace lichen

Lace lichen kindly requests that I leave my concepts at the door. It’s place in this world is more intricately interdependent than I can imagine. But if I can get my “knowing” brain out of the way perhaps I will see a little more of this lichen’s true nature. It’s not fixed and it can’t be grasped by human words (but it’s still worth it to try). Being with this lichen, I perceive a ghostly grace. I hear water splash in the distance, feel cool air on my face. I sense movement, a persistent swaying back and forth across space and time. There is attachment too, in the twirling strands suspended from branches and twigs. If I tug lightly, I sense the rightness of the attachment; the lichen knows its place and resists removal. When the rains come the strands are soft, almost weightless and when they dry up they feel rough, brittle even.

Those are some of my experiences; your sense of a lichen, a plant or an animal in your own world is different. It is local to you; it’s a moment that comes and goes but with open attention, can be deeply inspiring. And relaxing.

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12. I wondered what the Chestnut-backed chickadees were doing, rummaging around in this big clump of Lace lichen. My question went unanswered…but I was left with delight.

13.

14. The way Lace lichen joins branches and twigs to one another expands my perception of the space they inhabit.

The Science

Where does Lace lichen hang its ragged gray-green hat? On Fidalgo Island it thrives in the mists that rise on cool mornings in a few places along the western shoreline. Unlike many lichens that can be found all across the globe given the right conditions, this one keeps to a relatively tight geography, settling in on America’s West coast from 25° N to 55° N latitude (southern California to southern Alaska). In California it can range 130 miles inland but it flourishes between the mountains and the sea, where the air is clean and the light is diffuse and cool. Moist winds from the West carry nutrients captured by Lace lichen’s netted contours. That open structure also collects pollution, which will kill the lichen. You won’t find it amidst the honking horns of a metropolis.

What goes on inside lichens is surprising – for one thing, they’re not plants, they are complex partnerships between a fungus, and in the case of Lace lichen, the green alga Trebouxia decolorans (when it grows on California oaks – maybe Lace lichen in other locations has different algal partners). You can think of lichens as small-scale farms or ecosystems, with the fungus providing support and the alga making food for itself and the fungus by photosynthesizing. The scientific name for Lace lichen is actually only the name of the fungal partner. In the case of many lichens, I doubt that the photosynthesizing partner has even been identified. Lichen partnerships can include cyanobacterium, non-photosynthetic bacteria, and some have single-celled yeast partners, too. Whew, it’s a party in there!

Lichens have been called “intimately interacting mutualists.” That sounds like something we should all engage in more often. The partners’ activity produces chemical compounds like proteins, amino acids, and polysaccahrides as well as secondary metabolites like antioxidants and substances that act as a sunblock. Though humans don’t get much from eating Lace lichen, elk and deer are known to browse it. Birds most likely use it for nesting material. Lace lichen was used “in a variety of ways by tribes of Native Americans along the coast, and possibly throughout the Sierra. In a compilation put together by Sylvia Sharnoff in 2003, Lace Lichen was used by the Kawaiisu because of its “magical” properties. They would use it to ward off thunder and lightning by throwing it in fire. They would also throw it in water to bring on rain.” (Journal of the Sierra College Natural History Museum, Winter 2018).

If you’re wondering about reproduction, Lace lichen (really the fungal partner) reproduces both sexually and asexually. The asexual method is simply fragmentation – pieces get torn off and if they land in the right place, they’ll keep growing. There are tiny cup-like protrusions (apothecium) on the lichen’s body that hold spores which can be blown out by the wind. How exactly the spore turns into the lichen, I do not know! The fungus would need to find that photosynthesizing partner to grow into a Lace lichen (and you thought humans had trouble finding the right partner). Life is complex!

15. A clump of Lace lichen on the ground.

16. I put a wayward strand on my car to admire the color and structure.

17. This tree wears a Lace lichen necklace. You can see other lichen species on the bark of the tree. This Lace lichen is drying out as summer approaches. It will bounce back from dormancy with the return of rainfall in September.

18. A lichen and its shadow.

19.

Humans Connect with Ramalina menziesii

The Macedonian artist Kristina Zimbakova has used Lace lichens (and other species of lichen) in her mixed media work. Here is an example.

In 2015 California became the first state in the US to recognize a state lichen, Ramalina menziesii. After years of lobbying by the California Lichen Society, Governor Jerry Brown signed on the dotted line.

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20.

21.

“We must entrust ourselves to what we are investigating to guide us safely in the quest” (Gadamer, 1960/1989, p. 378)

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66 comments

    • It’s a great subject to work with. I ran out in a light rain yesterday to get a few more photos before posting. #19 was one of them. I got a bit wet but it was worth it. Thank you!

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  1. This is pure poetry, Lynn. Beautiful, your way to adress this lichen personally and talk to it(?) – I’m tempted to say: her. This lichen seems so extremely feminine, so softly ornated in threads and webs and ribbons.
    Your photos come along complementarily to the words: it is difficult separating the photographer from the subject here, but especially outstanding for me are the photos showing the filigree ladders in detail, and the ones that make me feel the moist wind on the face while I watch the lichen sway.
    My favourite way to learn about nature is with you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really appreciate that you take the time to wade through a long post that’s not in your first language. I like to take a poetic stance but the facts are interesting too, and it can be hard to balance the different points of view. All the work is worth it if I read a comment like your last one, above. Thank you so much, my friend!

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    • Thanks Johnny – #8 was a last-minute addition – I went out in a light rain yesterday to see if I could make some interesting images. That one, the one above it, 19 and 20 were the result so it was worth getting wet. (The camera & lens are weather-resistant but I still tucked them inside my jacket). You’re right, this lichen makes the places where it’s plentiful look very special. Thanks for being here, and stay safe & healthy!

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    • The ethereal nature of this lichen is just what I was focusing on for that one. It was taken just yesterday when I ran out in the rain to make a few more photos. Thank you for stopping by and commenting, I really appreciate it. 🙂

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  2. Yes, excellent images – my favourites are 1, 4, 7, 8, and 21. When I used to take American safari client up Mt Kenya, there were plants hanging from the forest trees there which they said looked just like Spanish Moss. 🙂

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    • Thanks, Adrian, it’s a wonderful subject to work with and captured my heart the first time I looked closely and saw the “lace.”
      I bet those were lichens up on Mt. Kenya too. There are many species that hang in long strands. (The American “Spanish moss” is actually a flowering plant, not a moss or lichen)
      I googled “Mt Kenya” and lichen and there was a photo of a kind of Usnea, which is a genus of long, thready, hanging lichens. We have them here too – they’re similar to Lace lichen from a distance but they don’t have the netting.
      Check this out from a study just published in April:
      “Diversity of tropical lichen-forming fungi, especially crustose lichens is currently poorly known. Since lichens are important bioindicators of air pollution, forest health, and climate change, we addressed the lichen diversity in Kenya. Our study focused on the diversity of lichen-forming fungi in the Mount Kenya montane forests, where we sampled corticolous lichens at ten localities in the Mount Kenya forest. The lichen diversity in the study area was very rich with fifty-nine species recorded for the first time from Kenya; 18 of them are new records for the African continent.”
      Journal of East African Natural History

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  3. As soon as I saw this post’s title I remembered the lace lichens we saw in California on our visit there in 2016. Now the name Ramalina reminds me of Thumbelina.

    #8 is mysterious, and #20 reminds me of things I’ve seen in Surrealist paintings (sorry, no specific painting comes to mind).

    A few mornings ago the words to the 1956 song “The Wayward Wind” started going through my mind for no apparent reason. Now the similar-sounding wayward strand comes my way in #16. The picture is also a reminder of the two-tone cars of the 1950s.

    I was recently surprised to learn something about the scientific names of lichens. Here’s how Wikipedia puts it: “Lichens are given the same scientific name (binomial name) as the fungus in them, which may cause some confusion. The alga bears its own scientific name, which has no relationship to the name of the lichen or fungus.” I’d’ve thought each combination would have its own scientific name.

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    • Ramalina Thumbelina, I like it! It’s crazy the way songs appear in our minds for no apparent reason, even ones we haven’t thought of for years. Wayward Wind is good for this lichen.
      And Wikipedia explains the naming dilemma better than I did, but I did address that under “The Science” – second paragraph. Apparently it’s just too unwieldy to give lichens names that would somehow reflect the fungus and the algae (and the algae can vary). Or more likely, most lichens were named before anyone knew about the algal partners.
      I overdid it with all the information here! 😉
      Thanks!

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      • I think biologists are being too parsimonious when it comes to naming lichens. It’s already common to have long scientific names like Thymophylla pentachaeta var. puberula (that’s a real one I just looked up for a forthcoming post), so it seems that for a lichen it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to use two binomial names with a hyphen or slash between them. But no one’s going to appoint me namer-in-chief, so I guess I’d better dream on.

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  4. Such a pleasure. A genuine pleasure to read your deft writing while viewing these lovely images, a story of interdependence, and your own story harmonizes with sincerity and gracefulness. Who’d have thunk I’d really savor some science writing? But the science is subsumed within your artistic word-picture, maybe “embraced” is closer to the right description. Thank you, Lynn, what a treat.
    Don’t know why I always feel compelled to pick out a favorite photo, and I realize I cannot do that this time, but I’m crazy about chickadees, I’ve had them eat out of my hand a few times, and very happy you included that shot. RPT

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    • Well, it’s an equal pleasure for me to read a comment like this that justifies all the effort. 😉 I separated the science out and labeled it so people who want to skip it, can. 😉 I love your statement that science is embraced within the body of the post, words, and images. Perfect!
      Chickadees! I have loved them since childhood. We have a few different species out here so I don’t have to be lonely. I have fed them by hand too, out here and back east, as early as age 10 or so. Glad to know you’re a fellow Chickadee-lover. They’re the epitome of comfortable companionship in the forest with their chattering ways.

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    • Ah, good, thank you, Denise! It’s a lot of work, between processing photos, researching, and writing, so I really am heartened when someone responds to more than just one or two images. And you’re right, I should print some. Thanks so much for your good words. 🙂

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  5. It was a pleasure to meet this lichen with such a personality and the aspects related to it.
    As always, photos are extremely beautiful, fully accompanying the elegance, details and structural features of the species.
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and sensitivity!

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    • I hope you can find it one day…there are other long, hanging lichens in our area but only this one has the lacy structure. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, which reflects my attraction to a unique – well, I want to say plant but technically that’s wrong so I’ll say, being. 🙂 Enjoy the weekend!

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  6. These photos really bring out Mother Nature as the real artist she is. Picture 2 reminds me of a park in New Orleans where similar looking trees are draped in Lace Lichen (I think it’s them). I could not believe the how otherworldly the who area looked because of the Lace Lichen. Thanks for sharing.

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    • I like the idea that you see the artist that mother nature is in the photos. The plant in New Orleans is called Spanish moss. It grows in the American south – Lace lichen only grows along the West coast. But they have a very similar look, and the Live oaks of the south look a lot like the tree in #2 as well. Spanish moss and Lace lichen both create very interesting atmospheres – otherworldly, as you said! Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy your weekend. 🙂

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  7. One can feel and see your love for this “plant” 😉 in your post. The pictures are beautiful. I love love love all these structures and ornaments. I would appreciate a whole gallery of lichen photos! I like your poem and the enchantment in the woods, that is so true. I can see them dancing, these wonderful lichens. Maybe one can create a curtain out of the lichen pieces or a small framed picture. They are so inspiring in their forms!! – For the information I used a translator this time (do you really say the honking horns of a metropolis? The translation sounded funny 🙂 Very interesting this kind of species. As you mentioned there is probably a lot we don’t know about the lichen and their partners. I think the plant inspires scientists that work with bionic. The mutability is astonishing. I wonder about the stability? – We use a product here as a lozenge when we got problems with our throat. It is a lichen from Iceland and it contains mucilage. Probably you have something similar too? I don’t count any numbers here. They are all so beautiful. Maybe 8 and 16 to 20 are my most favourite pictures. But the others too 🙂 One can understand that the native tribes saw something holy in them.

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    • I did say the “honking horns of a metropolis.” 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the photos – this lichen is really, really fun to photograph!
      I found a product on ebay called IceLander Spray for sore throats. It includes herbs and something they are calling “Icelandic kerpen.” Maybe that’s the lichen. I like the way Germans continue to use traditional medicines. Here in the US I think there is a much bigger separation between “serious” Western medicine and the traditional healing arts. For example, homeopathic medications are more accepted in Germany, I think. I agree with what you said about tribes seeing something holy, or mystical or whatever you want to call it in them – what makes me happy is that you get that feeling after seeing the post. That means I was successful. 😉 Thank you, Almuth. (Isn’t it very late where you are???) 🙂

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      • Ha – I just found another offering on ebay – from Lithuania – “Isla Mint” lozenges with Iceland moss extract. It would cost me almost one US dollar for each lozenge. 🙂 You can buy it dried, too, and make your own preparation.

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      • No, it is not very late (nearly 11 pm) That is “early” right 😉 – The product sounds like something of that direction. You may be right, in Germany there are many forms of traditional healing common, naturopathy, anthroposofy and so on. They have a long history. Today the pharmaceutical industry is not so happy about it 😉 Less adverse effects and much cheaper. I thought that Homeopathy is famous in the US too? Or it was maybe? I have a good book from an American writer. Aren’t there any products with lichen? I have to think of Alga all the time. In France there is a big industry and they make lots of products out of it, cosmetics as well as nutrition supplement. But maybe I just think of it the wrong way 😉

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        • Homeopathy is more accepted than some other non-traditional forms of healing, but it’s not something most people are familiar with. Of course, there are lots of books about alternative therapies, but again, the difference is that they are not mainstream. I think this is one of the areas where Europe is ahead of the states. Joe and I were reminiscing about outdoor food markets in Europe, specifically the one in Leiden. There is so much more avaiable in those places!

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        • Maybe these markets have again a longer tradition then the ones in the US? I think the markets in the Netherlands may be even more opulent then ours here (although we have some very variegated ones), because of their many connections to southeast Asia. I remember the market in Groningen, and they have lots of exotic things I have never seen before. I love markets and foreign markets are always a special experience. They are lively and exciting, right 🙂 – I think there are differences in Europe too. Not in every country these alternative forms of healing are that appreciated. An interesting topic I would like to know more about.

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        • A long tradition of markets in Europe, for sure. And people rely less on gigantic supermarkets so I think there’s more appreciation of local markets. I love exotic foods, too. New York City has a large Chinatown and lots of other ethnic groups so there were many choices. I bet you’re right about different levels of interest in alternative healing in different countries. Italy, for example – my gut feeling is that homeopathy might not be as well accepted there. Maybe that’s wrong. We will research this when we’re all finished with everything else, right? 😉

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  8. I love every one of these images of this delicate lichen, but the Chestnut-backed chickadees in the lichen was an astounding great catch! It’s always a pleasure to get away from the “honking horns… “. 😀

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  9. A poetic and fascinating dive into Lace Lichen, Lynn. I enjoyed your opening words. I especially loved the images under “structure”. You’ve captured the graceful shapes so well. The chickadee on the lichen is delightful. I loved seeing Spanish Moss as a kid when visiting my grandparents in Florida and then living in the south later on. I didn’t know the difference – thanks for all your great research. 🙂

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    • This is good to hear, Jane, thank you. That Chickadee and a pal flew into view at just the right time. Yes, the Spanish moss down there is so gorgeous! When this lichen is abundant is almost has a similar look. Big difference though, in spite of what you might imagine. Spanish moss actually has tiny, tiny little flowers! (Who knew?)

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  10. I think these may be the plants I tend to associate with temperate rain forests, although you didn’t call that out explicitly in your well researched details. Whatever you call it scientifically, aesthetically we can clearly call it delicate, elegant, and moody. Treebeard’s beard, west coast style.

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  11. Pingback: Wild Majesty: Mill Bay and Botanical Beach on Vancouver Island | Adventures in Wonderland


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