An upside to all this rain? The lichens are loving it. Grey curls of lichen have appeared on the craggy branches of an old Brugmansia in my garden and lacy patches of eau de nil are starting to embroider the frangipani.
At my local park, the casuarina trunks are wearing crochet shawls of lichen and an unpainted fence down the street is developing a lovely patina of mottled colour.
Lichens are a biological oddity – and an opportunity to see the world in a different way. They are not a single organism but a relationship, a finding so inimical to the orthodoxy of the late 19th century that the Swiss botanist who announced his astonishing discovery was denounced as a fool. In 2023 we are more open to living things not fitting binary positions. An organism that is a ‘them’ rather than an ‘it’ seems tailor-made for the times.
Lichen are a relationship between a fungi and either algae or a cyanobacteria, or both. The fungi provides the structure and its partner provides the energy. This symbiotic relationship is so successful that lichens are the dominant organism in 8 per cent of the earth’s surface and can be found in every ecological niche on the planet – from sub-Saharan deserts to the frozen reaches of the Arctic and Antarctic.
In really dry conditions lichens desiccate but don’t necessarily die. As soon as they become wet, they transform from crumbly shards into a soft velvety mass – and they start growing again. In this way they survive terrible conditions – and even space travel. It also means they grow slowly.
In the Antarctic, the driest continent on earth, lichen growth is so slow as to be imperceptible to the human eye over a decade. Contemplating the slow pace of the lichen is a respite from the rattle of human existence; yet meditation aid is the least of what lichens may offer humans. Researchers are only just uncovering the possibilities. Antibacterial compounds, antioxidants, sun filters, chemicals that inhibit cell division and so might slow cancer, dyes, substances that inactivate toxins, and chemicals that inhibit or encourage the growth of other plants – all have been found in lichens.
The Ancient Egyptians knew some of this. They used lichens in the process of mummification, which was especially clever as different lichens can take up 300 per cent of their weight in water, have antibacterial properties and are sweet smelling – all useful attributes when dealing with a corpse.
Some gardeners are wary of the creeping green, grey or gold of lichen, fearing disease or parasitic attack. On the contrary, the presence of lichen is nothing but good news. Lichens are a sign of clean air (they are very sensitive to pollutants) and a healthy ecology. Some lichens benefit their hosts by preventing insect attack, or trapping moisture from the air and increasing humidity. Some draw nitrogen from the air, all capture carbon. They are sought after by birds looking to line their nests and are vital for the production of soil.
Lichens can’t be bought, but they can be encouraged. Avoid using any chemicals in the garden and ensure patches of lichen get enough light and moisture.
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