Nature Speak 

Lichen life in Whistler? You Betcha!

Whistler Naturalist Society

Have you seen any blood-spattered beard, fairy puke, or antlered perfume around Whistler lately? If you have, you may be in the minority that truly notice what is possibly the most overlooked organism in the terrestrial world. It’s not a plant, nor is it an animal. It’s lichen.

In the simplest technical terms, a lichen is the physical manifestation that results from a symbiotic partnership between a fungus and an algae.

And the magic that results from this relationship is amazing. Ponder these capabilities:

Lichens can remain dormant for long periods, survive scorching deserts and complete losses of body water, and (in lab tests) withstand prolonged exposure to temperatures of -196 degrees C., all without harm.

Their complex chemistry produces more than 700 identified chemicals, some of which can break down rock into soil, and others that hold valuable pharmaceutical properties, including antibiotics.

Lichens can also absorb nitrogen from the air and transmute it into essential organic growth compounds, which in turn can fertilize our local forest soils with as much as one half of their nitrogen content. Total magic!

Lichen are often described as ‘fungi that have discovered agriculture’, a feat they achieved several hundred million years ago. While most fungi invade or scavenge for nourishment, lichen fungi cultivate compatible algae within themselves, through fungal filaments that surround and grow into the algal cells. The algae are photosynthesizers, and thus can supply food to the fungus in the form of protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins. The fungi side can provide the alga with water, minerals and protection from the elements. From this partnership more than twenty thousand different kinds or ‘species’ of lichen are known to exist, with new ones being constantly discovered.

Several hundred species of lichen inhabit our surrounding forests, including the common, light green alectoria sarmentosa , or ‘witches hair’, which has been garnered by many a local tree skier for use as artificial dreadlocks. Similarly, traditional cultures in our area used this same lichen to decorate ceremonial dance masks, as well as for bandages, baby diapers, sanitary napkins, bedding fiber for mattresses, absorbent fiber for cleaning salmon, and even, by the Lillooet (Stl'atl'imx) people, as raw material for ponchos and footwear.

Somewhat resembling witches hair is usnea longissima , or ‘Methuselah’s beard’. This longest of lichens (up to 6 meters) craves old growth forests and is extremely sensitive to air pollution. Consequently, it has been nearly extirpated from our area. If you find a stand of it hanging from trees or draped over shrubs in a well-ventilated forest around Whistler (it resembles Christmas tree tinsel), remember it has strict habitat requirements, is slow to grow and spread, and shouldn’t be collected.

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