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?

 

Miniature World

A bog seems at first like an unpromising site for photography but all it takes is getting close. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, since bogs are wet places, but having arrived home sodden but exhilarated I’ve decided it’s definitely worth getting wet. My role model in this type of close observation is Tina Claffey, whose book, Tapestry of Light, and whose Facebook Page are constant sources of inspiration. Tina – thank you! We must be twin souls because like you I return again and again to the same patch of bog. Time loses meaning as I simply lie and let my eye tune in.

My little patch is quite close to my house and I described it in my post last year “The Wildest and Richest Gardens” – West Cork Bog Soaks. It’s taken a while this spring for the Cappaghglass soak to wake up but it’s well and truly alive now so here’s what’s there already.

On the rocks

First of all, the soak is surrounded by heather and rock. Lying on the rock, with my face a few centimetres from the surface, I have become aware of the rich lichen growth all around me. I don’t know a lot about lichens but I have been studying this one (above and below) – Devil’s Matchstick.

It’s obvious how it got that name, and it’s sometimes also known as Nail Lichen too. It’s only about a centimetre high, about the length of my little fingernail. The Latin name is Cladonia floerkeana. In Ireland we get this bright red form of it, whereas in North America the tips are black.  The site I go to to learn about Lichens is http://www.irishlichens.ie. Here’s what they say about lichens on their home page:

Lichens are dual organisms; a fungus and one or more algae in a stable, mutually beneficial (symbiotic) partnership. The fungus provides structural form and protects the algae from extremes of light and temperature. Algae are capable of photosynthesis and some of the sugars produced provide the fungus with energy for growth and reproduction. Some lichens can live for many hundreds of years and being sensitive to pollution levels they are important environmental indicators.

There are several red-tipped lichens in the Cladonia group so I must look out for others. The trunk is described as squamulose which simply means scaly, at the bottom and becoming fruticose (or shrubby) as it grows. The stems are called podetia, and they are topped by the bright red apothecia. Yikes! Don’t think I’ll become a lichen expert in this lifetime.

And look at this one, that looks like a goblet – it’s another Cladonia but I don’t know which one. And lots of white lichen to boot. It’s a whole world down there on the rock, under our feet. 

Let’s move over to the the bog soak now and look at two things in particular. The first is the Sundew. At first I thought it wasn’t up yet, but as I got closer I realised that it was just emerging from the surrounding Sphagnum moss (the second thing).

Besides looking weirdly otherworldly, the Sundew is a clever little critter, well adapted to this habitat. It’s developed a special mechanism to ensure it gets the nutrition it needs, since there isn’t much in the bog. It traps insects on its little sticky hairs, then the leaf rolls rolls over and digests them.

You might not want to watch this video if you have a weak stomach

The sundew does have a little white flower, but it’s the leaves that are the centre of all the action on this plant. Our bog soak has the Round-leaved Sundew, which is more common in Ireland than the Oblong-leaved Sundew that you saw in the video.

A hapless ant is this Sundew’s meal

Finally, as I was nosing around (er, literally) among the Sphagnum, I saw that some of them had these little brown caps and I wondered what they were. It turns out that mosses propagate by means of spores, and the caps are little exploding spore capsules. When they blow, they fire the spores great distances.

Take a look at the spores exploding in slow motion – it’s quite a sight.

Some of the capsules in my little patch had exploded already – you can see the empty cup-like capsules in the photograph below – at the bottom of the picture..

Sphagnum itself is an amazing moss – we wouldn’t have bogs without it, as it’s what holds all the moisture. The Irish Peatland Conservation Council has an excellent information page on Sphagnum. It includes this:

A huge number of tiny microscopic plants and animals live with Sphagnum mosses. A few drops of water squeezed from wet Sphagnum contains hundreds of microscopic species such as desmids, diatoms, algae, cyanobacteria, amoebae, rhizopods, flagellates, ciliates, rotifers (wheel organisms), worms, nematodes (round worms), flat worms and heliozoans (sun animals). One scientist counted over 32,000 microscopic animals from a Sphagnum moss growing in a bog pool!

Now that’s a bit too miniature for my lens. I’m happy at the magnification I can achieve with my Lumix. If you need me, you know where I’ll be.