Back to Back Issues Page
Gardeners Continue Learning, about Lichen
May 19, 2008

Another week zooms by.

Temperatures are still below normal for southwest Michigan, yet I'm not complaining for the most part.

Flowering trees have been beautiful this spring and the cooler weather has kept the blooms on much longer than previous years.

Many days are in the mid 60's to around 70 when the sun is shining and that makes for a comfortable day. Though sunday never got out of the 50's and much of Michigan had a frost advisory last night.

When I get the time, I'm out in the yard playing and in some cases working.

Most of the White crowned sparrows have taken off, though there are a few stragglers.

I so enjoy there happy songs.

Several Orioles are around, but only a couple are visiting, which seems to happen more times than not around here. The most I've had at one time was 13 and that was 8 or 9 years ago.

House wrens have returned to the area as have Barn swallows. Along with the tree swallows, there is no shortage of aerial acrobats around here.

The first batch of baby Robins are all over the yard and they are keeping Papa busy.

Often with Robins, after the first few days of fledging mom leaves the feeding and training to Pops as she will start working on another nest.

When the young Robins are on their own, they find other youngsters and form loose groups while hanging out more in the wild.

Mama duck is still on her nest at the garden center.

In the back 40 at Flowerland (where I work), a couple of baby Killdeer scurry around with a watchful eye from mom.

A couple more robin's nest are being construceted. One in the trellis display and another on a wooden plant rack.

Silly birds.

If you had a drought or dry year last year, you may expect more seeds and cones from your trees. More than a normal year would provide that is.

Trees and many shrubs will produce more seeds the year following a drought as a way to keep the species going.

Yes, that may mean more helicopters whirling around this year and cones dropping next spring.

It's almost as if trees and shrubs have a brain of their own................................

Not a brain, but they do have built in, survival codes. To reproduce fast while they still can.

This is also why trees and shrubs can heal a non life threatening wound if it is a healthy plant to begin with (signals are sent to stop sap flow to a broken branch etc.).

It's True.

With spring and warmer weather, we can expect insects.

In a natural balance, a few insects are expected. After all, insects are food for birds, toads, frogs, salamanders and other insects.

When we mess with the natural order and start using toxic insecticides, all kinds of things can happen.

We kill off good bugs and pollinators (bees, butterflies and even hummers).

We sicken and destroy other forms of life and eventually things are off kilter.

Then we can have some serious insect issues.

You may want to consider using earth friendly insect deterants like hot pepper sprays or garlic sprays on your prize poseys.

Most insects are near sighted, they hunt and forage by smell and taste.

By messing with their sense of smell and taste, you can help keep your plants strong without killing off beneficial life forms.

It may require a little more effort on your part, but it is well worth it and think how good you will feel knowing you are lending "Nature" a helping hand.

When you garden for wildlife or just enjoy your yard and veggie garden, school never lets out (or at least it shouldn't).

I know that I continue to learn and want to learn as much as I can.

So today, we are holding class and I hope it is a bit informative for you.

Don't worry........................

There wont be a test later on.

This week's topic is on Lichen.

Though there is much on this topic, many of us know very little about this life form.


You may know it as something many hummingbirds use on their nests.

Especially Ruby-throated-hummingbirds.

Did you know that at least 50 other species of birds in North America also use a form of Lichen in their nest building?

But what is Lichen?

Lichen lives a very interesting life.

Have you heard of the word "symbiosis" or the term "symbiotic relationship"

A symbiotic relationship is where to life forms benefit from each other.

A couple examples would be flowers and pollinators like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. There is also all those birds that glean insects from bison and other animals.

Both benefit.

Lichen takes symbiosis one step further.

Lichen is formed when certain fungus and certain algae get together.

One cannot live without the other, it is as complex or as simple as that.

More technically, lichens consist of a threadlike fungus entwined with an algae or a cyanobacteria.

Twenty-three different genera of unicellular green algae and twelve genera of cyanobacteria (formerly called blue-green algae) can be found in these lichen partnerships.

In all cases, the algal member of the pair can be seen only under a microscope; the fungus is the visible component.

Lichens are considered part of the Fungi Kingdom and take their scientific name from the fungal partner.

These odd couples live together successfully with a clear division of labor:

The algae produce the food by manufacturing sugars and starches photosynthetically that the fungi cannot produce.

While the fungi provide moisture, structure, and shelter against ultraviolet radiation for the algae.

A marriage made in heaven.

Because lichens are made up of two separate organisms from two separate kingdoms, the partners must reproduce independently, and then hope their offspring will hook up in some fashion.

There are at least 14,000 known different forms world wide and they are found just about everywhere on earth.

That's a whole lot of different fungus and algae getting together, isn't it?

There are different intricate patterns and they can grow on rocks, sidewalks, driveways, houses, trees and even underground.

Just about every where you look, you can spot Lichen growing.

You may be familiar with the gray-green colors that grow on trees and sidewalks, but they come in colors of red, orange, yellow and many variations.

Lichen is a main food source for Reindeer during the cold Arctic winters.

Lichen have been used in perfumes, homeopathic remedies and other neat things.

Though several birds use it in nest building, they don't corner the Lichen market.

What you may call moss growing on the North side of a tree or sidewalks is more than likely Lichen if it is a gray-green color.

Lichen poses no threat to trees or other plant material. In fact, if a branch or other object is more than 2 years old, chances are there is some form of Lichen attached to it.

So why do birds use Lichen as nesting materials and how is it attached.

Some birds like Bush-tits will weave a dangling form of Lichen into the nest, while hummers will attach it to the outside of the nest by using sticky spider webs.

Rubies build a nest that is so small (the size of a half walnut shell) that Lichen is used to hide or camouflage the nest into the natural setting.

Consider that most Rubies prefer to nest in a rural setting and near water, finding a nest nest is almost accidental as they often hide them so well.

Many other species of hummingbirds are more willing to build near people and some almost in small communities and several of them will indeed build with Lichen.

Can you imagine the time and energy involved in scraping Lichen from trees and other objects?

Next time your outside or taking a walk, take a moment to study Lichen.

Notice the intricate almost art like patterns of this living mass.

There is so much more to write about on these simple yet intricate life forms, but this is all I'm giving you for now.

Once again, it goes to show you just how amazing creation really is.

The more time I spend as a Naturalist and in the natural world, the more I appreciate what has been given to us.

The photos are but a few examples of Lichen, can you find it growing in your yard, on your house ot other object?

Lichen may not be the most intersting topic, but it is one taken for granted and serves a purpose in the Natural World.

Well, that's it for now.

Have a blessed week and do take time to notice the world around you.

Be sure to smile and as always, please share your smile with others.

It just feels good and can make a day for someone else.

Here is your thought for the week.

If you have the courage to begin, you have the courage to succeed.

David Viscott

Get out of your comfort zone and move forward.

Sure, you will make a few mistakes, but learn from them and continue taking steps in a positive direction.

Until next time my friend.

"Treat the earth well:

It was not given to you by your parents,

It was loaned to you by your children.

We do not inherit the Earth from our

Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children."

Ancient Indian Proverb

Your friend indeed,

Ron Patterson

PS. If you enjoy these letters, please forward them to friends, family and co-workers. Better yet, have them sign up so they can recieve their own letters.

Gardening For Wildlife.

Back to Back Issues Page