We often hear that the US needs to boost its investment in science education to keep up with rest of the world. While we often think in terms of physics and chemistry when we think of science, we need to remember biology and ecology fit in the mix, too.
I bring this up because of a call a received a while back from a homeowner. The gentleman was concerned /borderline distraught that he would have to remove a prized maple tree from his front yard because it had “peculiar growths all over the trunk”. I told him it was difficult to diagnose a tree problem sight unseen but if he could send me some images, it might help me out.
The photo did indeed make ‘the problem’ obvious.
The growths were lichens. Lichens do not harm trees but I’m sure an unscrupulous tree service could have easily convinced the homeowner his tree needed come out had he not contacted me first. Lichens are actually two organisms; a fungus and an algae that form a symbiotic relationship and function very much like one organism The algae part of the lichen is photosynthetic, and therefore they are able to produce their own energy and do not take any resources away from the tree. In fact, lichens often grow on non-living substrates such as wood, concrete, tombstones, benches and so on. If a homeowner observes a dead tree or dead branch covered with lichens on it, this is a coincidence; the lichens did not cause the branch or the tree to fail. The tree trunk or branch simply provides a porous surface for the lichen to attach. Lichens are often fairly inconspicuous, but in some moist areas, such as the Pacific Northwest, they may form a mat that completely coats branches.
Lichens grow in some of the most inhospitable places on earth from deserts to tundras.
Lichens are commonly grayish-green, but may also be yellow or red, depending of the type of algae associated with the fungus.
Lichens are sensitive to air pollution, and researchers are investigating their use as a bio-indicator of air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and ozone.