Seemingly once a week we see a report in the news about how Science and Math education in the US lags behind many developed countries around the world. http://articles.cnn.com/2011-05-15/us/education.obrien.response_1_math-and-science-national-robotics-competition-education?_s=PM:US
While we typically think of Chemistry and Physics when discussing science education, biology is in there too.
I bring this up because I am continually amazed at how little many people know about basic biology. Some of this funnels its way into extension calls and e-mails. A couple of weeks ago I got a call from a distraught homeowner in a Detroit suburb. “My maple trees are dying”, he told me sincerely. “There are growths all over them. They’re big trees. What do I need to do to save them?”
I tried to get as much information as I could over the phone: How old are the trees? What kind of maple? Describe the site. Describe the symptoms. I told him the problem didn’t sound like typical issues with maples in our area (i.e., not manganese chlorosis, tar spot, gall mites, or verticillium wilt). Diagnosing problems sight unseen is difficult so I asked if he could get me some digital photos. “Yeah, my son has a digital camera. We can do that.” Later that week I got a series of digital photos like the one below.
Lichens on maple
I informed him the growths on the trees were lichens, a combination of a fungus and algae; they’re normal and they don’t harm trees. I gave him a quick biology lesson on lichens and pointed out that some of the pictures he sent were of lichens growing on the sidewalk. The algae part of the lichen is photosynthetic so they just need a place to hang out – a tree, a sidewalk or a piece of wood all work fine.
British soldier lichens
One of my all time favorite bumper stickers says, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance”. I suspect if this homeowner had happened to call an unscrupulous tree service instead of MSU Extension, they would have been more than happy to ‘treat’ the problem and sign him up for their deluxe 8-step pest and micro-nutrient maintenance plan. Sometimes a little knowledge can go a long ways.