I’ve been seeing a lot of interesting lichens lately and thought I might write about them, even though I really don’t know that much about identifying them. Maybe you’ll like just looking at them as I do, and won’t care if you know their identity. I do know that a type of lichen called rock tripe grows on rocks near water, so off I went to the nearest lake. As I slowly drove around the lake looking for likely spots where rock tripe would grow, I saw this.
This boulder is 6 or 7 feet tall, as long as a pickup truck, and probably weighs ten times as much. I was going to call it a glacial erratic, but apparently such stones are considered erratic only when they “differ from the size and type of rock native to the area in which they rest.” This one is granite just like most of the stones in the area, so it doesn’t fit the definition. Still, I imagine it has been sitting here since a glacier dropped it many thousands of years ago because it is too big to have been moved any other way. I decided to look it over.
It had rock tripe (Umbilicaria mammulata) on it all right-In fact half of it was covered with them. These Lichens are edible and there are accounts of people lost in the wilderness surviving by eating them. It is said that even George Washington’s starving troops ate them at Valley Forge, and Native American Cree people thickened their fish stew with them. It is wise to use care when eating lichens though, because some (Letharia) and (Vulpicida) were used to poison wolves in Europe.Another lichen, (Parmelia molliuscula) has been known to poison sheep and cattle.
I found that rock tripe lichens come in many colors. Colors vary within species due to light exposure, genetics, age, pigments present, and sometimes color even depends on whether the lichen is wet or dry.
Rock tripe wasn’t the only thing growing on the boulder. Here yellowish lichens are surrounded by mosses. When I see this picture I imagine looking down on a miniature landscape where mosses become trees. One way lichens can spread is by having the wind blow pieces of them around.
Sometimes it is like looking down on a miniature rain forest. I had a model train set years ago when I was a boy and dyed lichens were my shrubs and trees.
Laplanders harvest lichen to feed their reindeer, and in Libya they are fed to sheep. Bear sometimes feed on lichens just after they wake from their winter nap. Mountain goats, caribou, moose, deer, and squirrels also eat them.
The colors and variety of lichens is amazing. Some lichens can live for more than a thousand years and have been used to make dyes in yellow, brown, red, blue, purple, and other colors for over 3,500 years. Navajo rugs were woven with wool dyed with lichens and native plants. Lichens are also used to scent soaps and perfumes. Compounds found in lichens are also used in anti-viral and anti-bacterial medications, which might be why ancient Egyptians packed the body cavities of mummies with them.
This is not a paint smear, but lichens that grew on the boulder in the shade of the trees at its left end in the photo. I’ve heard of blue lichens, but these look purple to me. Or maybe pink? The ancient Romans used Roccella species from rocks around the Mediterranean to make purple dye for their togas. Later a longer lasting dye was made from snails. Purple has long been a symbol of royalty.
I Hope you enjoyed seeing a few of the lichens we have here in New Hampshire. Thanks for stopping by.