Lichens and Little Things in the Woods

The wonderful Ellen Hutchins Festival for 2019 has just finished – now in its fifth year and going from strength to strength in celebrating all the aspects of botany that Ellen practised. You can read about Ellen in my post Ellen Hutchins: The Short and Remarkable Life of Ireland’s First Female Botanist. We participated again in 2016 and I wrote about our fascinating walk Into the Woods with Pádraig Whelan and Howard Fox.

This year there was the same wide variety of botany-related activities, including an impressive array of events for children. We attended (above) a talk by Madeline Hutchins (Ellen’s GGG-Niece) about her life, with an emphasis on her letters and a talk on letter writing of the period by Carrie O’Flynn and then, last weekend, a Lichen Walk in beautiful Glengarriff Woods (first photograph, top).  Been there yet? If not, you’re missing a real treat.

The focus of the walk was lichen of course (apparently it is acceptable to say lyken or litchen so take your pick) with Paul Whelan (above). Paul has a website at Lichens of Ireland which seems to be down for maintenance, but there’s another one, Irish Lichens, run by Jenny Seawright, which I’ve been using and finding easy to follow, especially for a neophyte like me. But even though the subject was lichens, once you enter the woods it’s easy to get distracted by other things, so for me the day was as much about the insects and flowers that we saw (sorry, Paul) on our short, but incredibly rich, walk.

What are these people doing? This is how close you have to get, with a hand lens, to see the tiny patches of lichen on the rocks of the bridge

So what is a lichen? It’s a fungus, but one that works with another organism (usually green algae but sometimes a cyanobacteria) to produce something neither can do on their own. Since lichens can’t photosynthesise, they depend on the other organism to do that. The fungus contributes by consuming dead matter and this mutually beneficial and necessary relationship is called symbiotic.

And this is what we were seeing

The lichen body is called a thallus, and it produces spores (which is how it reproduces) through an apothecium (which looks like a tiny cup) or a perithecium (which looks like a tiny volcano). We saw mostly lichen with perithecia on our walk, some of which were just tiny black dots.

We also saw some foliose lichens – leaf like things such as the one immediately above, although you had to get very close with a hand lens to even see the leafy structures of some of them. Others were bigger and more obvious – these Usnea lichens (below) are like tiny bonsai leafless trees and attach to rocks and trees by a single contact point.

I had already written (in my post Miniature World) about the Cladonia Lichen such as the Devil’s Matchstick, and now that I know a bit more about lichens I’ve been browsing around our own garden and I found some on a rock wall (below) – not only Devil’s Matchsticks but the ones called Pixie Cups as well.

And the ‘other things’ on the walk? Clare Heardman from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, who seems to know about the whole gamut of wild organisms, was excited to see a fly land on Robert’s back. No ordinary fly, it turns out, but a Dark Giant Horse Fly (Tabanus sudeticus) – the largest and heaviest fly in Europe! We know it’s a female by the space between her eyes (males have no space) and it’s the female that bites and sucks your blood. One source I consulted says: Unlike insects which surreptitiously puncture the skin with needle-like organs, horse flies have mandibles like tiny serrated scimitars, which they use to rip and slice flesh apart. Charming, but fortunately she flew away before inflicting that on Robert.

Nearby, another fly was feeding on some Ling Heather, this time a hoverfly. Trying to identify hoverflies is a head wreck, there are so many different types, but I think this one is called parasyrphus lineola, one of the little forest hoverflies that like a conifer environment. Hoverflies are next to bees in importance as pollinators – it’s not that they carry as much pollen, but they are so busy and make so many visits to flowers that they do a sterling job. They also keep aphid populations under control.

You can see the dusting of pollen on this hoverfly

When we arrived at the pond Paul showed us the Usnea lichens – one tree over the water was entirely decorated with them, although they also like to grow on rocks as well. They belong to the Fruticose Lichens and on his website he describes them thus: Fruticose lichen appear tufted and shrubby and are usually erect or pendant and attached to the substrate at a single point. Filamentous lichen are soft and hair-like and some form felt-like mats comprised of very fine filaments.

The pond itself was alive with water striders, amazing little creatures that walk on water. A little Googling led me to this short video about how exactly they accomplish this, and what they live on (don’t watch if you’re squeamish).

As I was watching them, my eye was caught by a flash of brilliant blue and down came a damselfly to rest on one of the long reeds overhanging the pond. It was the aptly named Beautiful Demoiselle and a male, which has the striking metallic blue colour. This reed was its perch, from which it guarded its territory and kept an eye on passing edible insects, leaving it to chase them and then return. (There’s a good Wikipedia page on them.)

It was a great walk, all in all, and we can’t now go anywhere without checking out our surroundings for lichen. On a walk on Long Island yesterday I was attracted to the patches of bright orange and white lichen on the rocks. Here’s what I saw, at a distance and close up:

I was also delighted to see heather and lichen growing on one rock surface, and very attractive it looked together. The lichen might be one of the Cladonias, but please correct me if I’m wrong.

My previous feelings for lichen were all negative, since they obscure rock art and headstones, but now – have we caught the lichen bug? I hope not, since it already takes me an hour to walk around the block, stopping to look at flowers. What do you think, Dear Reader – is there any hope for us?

 

9 thoughts

  1. Great post – loved every bit/word!
    I’m also glad you brought up the lichen pronunciation!
    Horse flies, ah yes – my f-in-law tried to doctor his bite/tear with vinegar and brown paper. An old country recipe, or just downright silly? It got infected, and had to be treated properly.
    Life, she is strange, yet fascinating..

    Like

    • A horsefly bite, as I know to my cost, is no joke. This one looked like she could pack a real punch. Paul alternated between saying Lyken and Litchen, but called himself a Lyken-ologist.

      Like

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