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Posts Tagged ‘lichens’

Light grayish green lichens known as Old Man’s Beard hang from the trees in the forests.  Sometimes blown onto the ground on windy days, to the touch, these lichens are usually soft but sometimes stiff in dry weather.   A few are streaked with brown.

Old Man’s Beard is frequently found in clean, moist environments such as boggy woods.  Though it prefers to cling to coniferous trees in old growth forests, it also hangs from the younger birches in my backyard.  Sensitive to air pollution, it’s often found with other types of lichens, such as the foliose lichens shown below.

  

Canada’s native people harvested Old Man’s Beard long ago and added it to their diet.  It can be steamed or dried and pummeled into a powder.   A strong antibiotic, it was also used to prevent infection and gangrene from setting into external wounds.   A thousand years ago, Old Man’s Beard was already being used as a medicine to treat lung cancer.  It’s still used today as a treatment for tuberculosis in China as it contains usnic acid.

La barbe de nain illustration by Elisabeth Ivanovsky

The antibiotic properties of Old Man’s Beard make it an effective treatment for fish infections in ponds and aquariums.  Yellow warblers seek forests where the Beard is present as they consider it an indispensable construction material in building their nests. 

A french fairy tale, LA BARBE DE NAIN by Marcelle Vérité, explains that the beards once belonged to elves.  Long ago, it was customary for these kind, cheerful creatures to arrange bundles of deadwood on the forest floor as a gift for mankind.   But when men greedily began to cut down live trees, the elves hastily fled to remote mountain peaks, snagging their beards on branches in the process.  The lost beards can be found in forests to this day.

Considering the wonderful medicinal properties of these beards, their elvish origins are no surprise to me.

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Boreal Felt Lichen

If there was the slightest chance that a rare organism existed in your neck of the woods, would you try to find it? 

The Boreal Felt Lichen  (BFL) is considered a critically endangered species globally.   Acid rain and forest disturbances have threatened its existence on both sides of the Atlantic.  Once found in Sweden, Norway and New Brunswick, it is now believed to only exist in  Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. 

The BFL possesses the remarkable ability to convert nitrogen in the atmosphere into a form that can benefit forest plants and animals.  Like many of the earth’s rare organisms, it finds its home in forests that have not been disturbed by man and simply left in their primeval state. 

The color of the BFL varies from brownish-grey to bluish-green depending on its age and how moist or dry it is.  Velvety above, dried fronds curl to reveal a whitish edge.  Brownish-red berry-like nodules may be found on mature specimens.  BFL are usually found on balsam firs in the presence of the liverwort Frullania tamarisci.

Certain qualities are common to the woodland environments in which the Boreal Felt Lichen is already known to live:

  • The forest is within 25 km of the Atlantic coast.
  • Mature balsam fir trees grow in the area.
  • There is a North facing slope.
  • Sphagnum moss is found in the nearby wetland.
  • Ferns (cinnamon ferns esp.) are found among the grasses.
  • Red maples and black spruce trees are also found growing in the area.

Balsam fir needles and sphagnum moss

Although I’ve noticed all of the above qualities in the boggy woods behind my home, I’ve yet to find any BFL.  But I’ll keep looking.  You might like to look for them in your neck of the woods too.   Looking for rare lichens might not seem very exciting at first, but it’s an excellent way to spend an afternoon with a friend or a child in the woods.  Once you try it, you’ll never look at a lichen-covered tree or branch the same way again.

If you would like to learn more about the Boreal Felt Lichen, please visit the Newfoundland Lichen Education & Research Group’s Erioderma website.  It features the most excellent images of the BFL presently available online.  Many thanks to Eugene Conway of the NLERG for granting permission to use the two images of the Boreal felt lichen shown at the top of this post.

For further related reading, see The Benefits of Lichens on Trees  and  Don’t Clear Your Woodlands.

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The ancient Celts believed that barren wastelands existed because their leader and people were cursed.  Surely whether or not a space is a wasteland has more to do with one’s point of view than a curse.  A few days ago I visited a bog that I hadn’t seen since Hurricane Juan hit in 2003, destroying the old logging trails I used to follow to reach it.  Due to the slow tree growth typical in bogs, it had changed very little. 

For over a decade I walked through this bog daily with my dog, careful to place my feet on higher ground so that I wouldn’t sink into the bottomless black mud.  Though the bog looked especially pretty in spring with its bright pink orchids and rhododendrons, in winter it could be equally wonderful.  One cold day I suddenly heard wings flying above me and was surprised to see two bald eagles hunting for hares or other bog-dwelling prey just a few feet overhead. 

Snowshoe hare tracks in the bog

Body preserved in bog for over 2,000 years

Bogs were once considered magical places, probably owing to their reputation as cursed wastelands.  Some Northern European cultures sometimes buried their dead in bogs and it’s suspected that human sacrifices were made there during the Iron Age.    

Bogs were also places where treasures were hidden from invaders.  In 2006 the Irish found a thousand year old illuminated psalter manuscript in one of their bogs.  Could treasures still be waiting to be discovered here in Nova Scotia?

Today bogs are just beginning to be valued for their role in absorbing extra precipitation and acting as filters for air and water borne pollutants.  Sphagnum moss which is abundant here is also being studied for its role in absorbing oil from disaster spills.

Many of the lichens that hang from the trees in bogs also absorb moisture from the atmosphere.  The most marvelous of these can convert nitrogen in the air to a form usable by plants and animals. 

Unfortunately, in Nova Scotia, bogs are still considered wastelands and cheap real estate.  Locally, they continue to be filled with rubble and developed into subdivisions.  If the original evergreens left standing at the edge of new streets appear stunted, chances are that the homes nearby were built in a bog.  Sadly, once bogs are filled, they cannot go back to their original form.  If urban planners refuse to consider the role bogs can play in alleviating flooding and cleaning the atmosphere, perhaps we really are a people cursed.

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Mid-January can feel so bare.  The warmth and sparkle of the holidays are already a distant memory.  The days are still short and the nights long and cold.  New Year’s resolutions made just a couple of weeks ago seem more difficult to keep with every passing day.  It seems that winter has a frozen grip around not just the landscape but our souls as well.

I wonder about the animals hibernating in their cosy holes beneath the ground.  Why don’t we possess the same instinct to withdraw at this time of year?  In centuries past, northern folk refrained from activities after the harvest, huddled together to conserve warmth and waited out the darker days by sleeping more and eating less. 

In contrast we seem to expect more of ourselves at this time of year.  January is a productive time in homes, schools and workplaces as we attempt to meet the challenges we’ve set for ourselves.   If we feel tired and find it difficult to start the day or week, perhaps it should come as no surprise. 

In the winter forest, lichens take advantage of the sunlight that’s blocked by the canopy of leaves during the other seasons.  They cover tree trunks and hang from the bare branches.  Despite seasonal interruptions in light, they carry on, eventually covering entire trees with their delicate ornament.  Their growth may seem slow to us, but it is growth nonetheless.   

In January, instead of expecting amazing strides in growth like leaves in springtime, we might be wiser to adjust our expectations.  Renewed patience for our tasks and our ability to do them might be just what we need.  The year is still new, and there’s plenty of time ahead to make fresh beginnings.

In our journey through life it does not matter whether we achieve all the goals we have set ourselves, but that we should show patience when we do not succeed in something and then make a new start.
~ Ambrose Tinsley OSB

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You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and water-craft; a certain free margin, and even vagueness – perhaps ignorance, credulity – helps your enjoyment of these things…
~Walt Whitman

Sometimes, it’s good to know less than more.  Acquiring more knowledge of a subject often removes a soft veil of mystery that leaves only the bare facts visible.  The magic disappears. 

The numerous types of lichens, mosses and fungi make the woods seem more magical for many of us.  Is this because we typically know less about them than other living things in the forest?  If I encounter new, unknown varieties on a walk in the woods, why does this make the excursion more enchanting?  Perhaps, sometimes, it’s best to not know the names of things so that mystery and wonder can survive.

Though correct identification is helpful if they’re going to be eaten, nature’s myriad types of fungi need not be named in order to be enjoyed for the beauty of their subtle colours and forms.  Their ability to uplift our spirits are nonetheless.  And it may just be easier to imagine them eaten by elves or sat upon by delicate faeries if their exact variety is unknown to us.

I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.
~  Harry Emerson Fosdick

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A fresh covering of white clothes the woods in perfection.  Snow drifts in the forest have created hiding places for snowshoe hares.  Low balsam fir branches  even provide nutritious snacks to be enjoyed while they’re snuggling.  Snow is an excellent insulator, as air is trapped between the snowflakes.

Higher up, even the rough contours of dead branches are decorated with filigree.  The drifts on branches make it difficult to spot the well camouflaged black-capped chickadees. 

The layers of snow are so thick on some branches that it’s a wonder they don’t break under the weight.

Even the delicate lichens don’t escape an icing of snow.  These are home to tiny arthropods, eaten year-round by the chickadees.

The old man’s beard lichens look especially ethereal.  It’s all beautiful.

I’ve always regarded nature as the clothing of God.
~ Alan Hovhaness

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