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.
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
the swing and sway, the
drape and droop of you:
an enchantment in the woods.
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:
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.
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!
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.
“We must entrust ourselves to what we are investigating to guide us safely in the quest” (Gadamer, 1960/1989, p. 378)