The disruption of the Covid pandemic seems to go on forever; hospital admissions for Covid are rising and everyone is urged to test before they go anywhere which leads to lots of isolated young people and unvisited grannies.  It’s hard to feel positive as the new year begins even though the Omicron variant may be milder and many people hardly notice any symptoms. 

In this post I’m getting away from all that to look at lichens. These organisms which most people hardly notice are very sensitive yet incredibly tough and also beautiful, with a life strategy based on the strength of co-operation.

Lichens are all around us, growing on roadside trees we pass every day but people are often too busy going somewhere or too absorbed in themselves to see them.

Lichen on a street tree in Barry

Lichens also grow on old gravestones, adding living embellishments to the commemoration of the dead. 

Lichen on a gravestone in Barry Cemetary

In the 1700s the botanist Carl Linnaeus studied lichens, then thought to be plants, and gave some of them scientific Latin names as he attempted to slot all living things into kingdoms, classes, orders and species. Since then it’s been discovered that lichens are not plants but are a combination of a fungus and a green algae or cyanobacteria. These organisms live in one body in a mutually supportive relationship known as symbiosis. The fungus provides structure and the algae and cyanobacteria provide food through photosynthesis. It’s a very successful partnership and lichenologists have now identified and named around 18,000 lichens living everywhere from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Many of them are very beautiful when magnified.  

Cladonia coccifera 
Tatiana Bulyonkova from Novosibirsk, Russia, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Lichens are also indicators if air pollution; although some species will tolerate pollution others will only grow where the air is pure. The Natural History Museum website explains this very well at HTTPS://WWW.NHM.AC.UK/DISCOVER/NATURE-AND-POLLUTION-WHAT-LICHENS-TELL-US-ABOUT-TOXIC-AIR.HTML

Lichens may be sensitive but they’re also tremendously tough: they can survive in a greater range of latitudes and altitudes than most other organisms and can even survive a visit to outer space; here’s an extract from The New Scientist Magazine, 21 Jan 2021

‘Lichens have the ability to shut down, allowing them to tolerate extreme desiccation in a dormant state. They recover quickly when conditions improve, restarting photosynthesis and growth. Two lichens took a trip on a Russian Soyuz rocket in 2005. They were exposed to the vacuum environment and cosmic radiation of open space for 15 days. On their return to Earth, their ability to photosynthesise was unaffected. It would be a fair bet for lichens to be one of the last living life forms on a dying Earth.’ 

Read more at: https://www.newscientist.com/lastword/mg24933191-100-how-do-lichens-survive-on-baking-hot-roofs/#ixzz7FswOPYO0

Lichens are often un-noticed but through them I glimpse the magnificent nature of the world beyond myself and my fidgety human anxieties. I also love their wonderful Latin names and I’ve written them an ode, a poetic form which is, according to Wikipedia ‘an elaborately structured poem praising or glorifying an event or individual, describing nature intellectually as well as emotionally.’


For Linnaeus all life was notable, 
he allocated double barrelled names 
to scabs and shreds on trees and stones, 
now hundreds of lichens too insignificant 
to merit an English title are awarded 
a resonant Latin appellation. 

In acid towns ragged yellow circles 
on roofs where seagulls squawk and shit  
are dubbed Xanthora paretina, 
On gravestones in country churchyards
Leconora muralis jostles for space
in a chaos of crusty decorations.

In quiet woods Graphis scripta 
scribbles small hieroglyphics on hazel trees, 
on rotting stumps Cladonia coccifera 
raises bright omens of a rosy future,
in the purest air Lobaria pulmonaria 
inhales the sun through mock alveoli.

Under Arctic snow lies reindeer manna 
Cladonia rangiferina, Usnea longissima 
garlands temperate forests, Dimelaena radiata 
clings to desert stones and in the wastes 
of Antarctica Xanthoria elegans and Buellia frigida 
splodge orange and black on the icy rocks.

In lichen’s beginning, in a turmoil 
of competing lives beyond imagination, 
fungi, algae and cyanobacteria
wrapped their bodies in each other 
and, forsaking their separate selves, 
secured the blessings of symbiosis.

Now lichens creep over the land in a smudge
of insignificance, but maybe before the sun 
begins to die and when the planet 
no longer sustains a species that assumes 
its individuals are the pinnacle of creation,
the incredibly meek lichens shall inherit the earth.

Anne Bryan