Monday, August 11, 2008

Amazing Lichens

While out with a group of students doing a compass exercise in July, I came across this wonderful foliose lichen:

It was huge! Easily six to eight inches long, three inches wide per leaf. But I had no idea what it was.

Fast forward to last week. A friend of mine, who is a botanist of the old-school type (knows her plants all by their scientific names), knew right away what it was: Lobaria pulmonaria, or Lung Lichen. According to Evelyn, it is an indicator of clean air, and grows on high calcium tree bark. In these parts that is usually sugar maple (and indeed I found this specimen at the base of a large sugar maple). Lung lichen is also extremely sensitive to toxins, which makes it a wonderful indicator of ecosystem health. According to Wikipedia, it is often found in climax communities, such as old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Here are some other interesting factoids about this lichen:

  • The name lungwort (or lung moss, or lung lichen) comes from its general appearance - it looks somewhat lung-like.

  • According to the Doctrine of Signatures, if a plant resembled a part of the body, it was presumed to have curative properties for that body part. As a result, this lichen was deemed to be beneficial for lung and respiratory ailments. There are no "peer-reviewed" data to support this belief, however.

  • The Hesquiat people of British Columbia used lungwort in a treatment for those who were coughing up blood.

  • In Darjeeling and Sikkim it was also used traditionally to treat lung problems.

  • There used to be a monastery in Siberia that used this lichen in the brewing of a bitter beer (according to the entry on L. pulmonaria at

Most of us have learned at some point in our education that lichens are actually composed of two different living organisms: a fungus and an alga. Well, our friend L. pulmonaria is apparently a symbiotic organism with three components: a fungus, an alga and a cyanobacterium. The cyanobacterium serves as a nitrogen-fixer, just like legumes such as peas, beans and clover function in your garden or lawn.

All in all, this is a nifty "plant." Keep your eyes open when you are out tramping through the woods - you never know what fascinating thing you might stumble across!

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