A few months ago, my husband and I went hiking in the Superstition Mountains.  These mountains lie just east of the Phoenix metro area and are absolutely beautiful.  We saw many wonders as we hiked…..beautiful rock formations, stately saguaro cactus, springs of water coming up through rock, wildflowers, hummingbirds and butterflies.

 I had posted details of our trip in an earlier post, which you can read here if you like.  However, while I was busy taking pictures and taking in all of the beauty around me, my attention was drawn to a tiny plant the could easily be overlooked.

  My attention was captured at the lichen covered rocks that were all around.  I began to wonder how this little plant was able to survive on a rock – a very inhospitable place for a plant, I must say.  I have some small areas of lichen growing on the boulders in my garden as well.

To be honest, I have never given much thought to lichen before.  But, any plant that can grow and thrive on bare rock deserves a second look.

I did a little research about lichen….I do think I studied lichen back in college, but I honestly can’t remember much – I think I probably had to learn about them for a test and then promptly forgot what I had learned 😉  To be honest, I like most plants, but lichen seemed rather boring to me at the time, especially when I was learning about trees, grass, shrubs and perennials.

You know the phrase, “Don’t let appearances fool you?”  Well, this unassuming plant(s) had some surprises for me and I will share some of them with you.

Okay, fact #1 – lichen are actually made up of two different organisms, fungi and algae (and sometimes cyanobacteria).  Each of the organisms help the other.  Since the fungi cannot create their own food, they need the algae to photosynthesize and provide food.  In turn, the fungi provide protection for the algae allowing them to exist in difficult areas.

Fact #2 – they can grow in very inhospitable places such as rock, sand and arctic tundra.  *It seems to me like they find the most difficult place to grow and then move in 🙂

Fact #3 – Lichen are a food source for deer, squirrels and birds, especially in the winter when food is scarce.  You can also see bits of lichen used to make bird’s nests.

Fact #4 – Tea made from lichen has been used for medicinal purposes and as well as dyes.  In fact, lichen have been used in over 500 different biochemical compounds. 

One last interesting note that I found about the history of lichen.  Early in her career, the famous children’s author and illustrator, Beatrix Potter, worked as a scientific illustrator.  Through her work drawing lichen, she came to believe the theory that lichen was not just one plant, but two organisms co-existing together.

She was an ardent observer of the natural world and also drew pictures of animals, including rabbits.  Beatrix Potter then wrote a little story to go along with one of her illustrations and the rest they say, is history.  She went on to publish many children stories, including the famous “Peter Rabbit”.

And so what I have learned is that there are surprises, even in the smallest plants.  I mean who would have connected the dots between lichen and Beatrix Potter?

I hope you all have a wonderful week!  I am on my way to my mother’s house (Double S Farms) to make applesauce from the apples from their tree.  I will post about that later this week.
Noelle Johnson, aka, 'AZ Plant Lady' is a horticulturist, certified arborist, and landscape consultant who helps people learn how to create, grow, and maintain beautiful desert gardens that thrive in a hot, dry climate. She does this through her consulting services, her online class Desert Gardening 101, and her monthly membership club, Through the Garden Gate. As she likes to tell desert-dwellers, "Gardening in the desert isn't hard, but it is different."

14 replies
  1. Kate
    Kate says:

    Hi, Noelle;
    What a great post. I see the orange lichen clinging to rocks on nearly every hiking trail (don't recall ever seeing yellow.) But, I never gave it a second thought! I'm amazed it's a food source…

  2. Curbstone Valley Farm
    Curbstone Valley Farm says:

    I think I ignored lichen, and moss, and fungi in college. Funny thing now, is I'm rather taken with all of them. We have an abundance of them here. Lichen are rather fascinating, and can be gloriously colorful. When I was doing research in south America there was a particular lichen that grew on cliff faces below where Andean Condors roosted for the night. It only grew in the presence of Condor droppings. It made it easy to find the roosts, as it was visible from a long distance away. But that many lichen are niche specific, I think is fascinating!

  3. Kathleen Scott
    Kathleen Scott says:

    Great post. I've never thought about lichen. Deer eat it! Confirms my theory that they eat almost anything. Are there particular kinds of rocks that grow lichen? I don't remember seeing any on the old coral (limestone) fences in Florida.

  4. Autumn Belle
    Autumn Belle says:

    What an enlightening post. I used to think that lichen are like fungus which can infect other plants until I read about them in Science. You have managed to bring out the magic in them. I never expected lichen is linked to Peter Rabbit.

  5. Floridagirl
    Floridagirl says:

    I too am always fascinated by lichen on my hikes and in my garden. I'm always looking on tree trunks and rotted logs, though, as pretty boulders like that are few and far between in my local terrain. My favorite lichen is a bright red variety called Christmas lichen, which doesn't grow in my garden, but I do see it in the woods. Fascinating fact that Beatrix Potter discovered the truth about lichen!

  6. Catherine@AGardenerinProgress
    Catherine@AGardenerinProgress says:

    This was really interesting and some very pretty pictures too. I love the lichen that grows on our big Japanese Maple. I think Lichen adds a lot of character to whatever it grows on.
    Very interesting about Beatrix Potter, one of my very favorite illustrators!

  7. Rosie@leavesnbloom
    Rosie@leavesnbloom says:

    Noelle I think lichen are so interesting when I was reading up on them I never read about the connection with Beatrix Potter!

    Have you've ever heard of Harris Tweed (a scottish fabric)? – the dyes used are from lichen – its called "crottle".

  8. Teresa O
    Teresa O says:

    Lichen can be quite beautiful as you've shown. What an interesting fact about Beatrix Potter and her astute observation of the symbiotic relationship between two organisms.

    Have fun making applesauce!

  9. Brad
    Brad says:

    I remember finding lichen fascinating when learning about them in middle school and high school. But alot of this info was new to me. Thanks for the post.

  10. Msrobin
    Msrobin says:

    I've often heard of the Superstition Mountains, they look beautiful and very much like the Sedona beauty we saw. Hope Kai is doing well!

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