Discover the small world of lichens in our woods
The Sportsmanís Report
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By Bill Hanson  November 1, 2013 12:00 am

On an outing with the gem and mineral society, I became aware of some rocks that we travel on every day and the startling beauty they might hold inside their humble, unpolished outer surface.

Simple agates picked up on the beach may become small windows into the mysteries they hold. One exceptional example was no bigger than the end of your thumb, yet when you hold it to the light and peer closely into the stone, a whole galaxy of sparkling stars and distant nebula are seen. My friends are right, I’m an easy mark. 

When I told my son about my outing, his first comment was, “Dad, tell me you didn’t join another club.” I love to share the excitement others have for their hobbies, so long as it is something that interests me. 

Chances are fairly high that I wouldn’t join the belly-dancing club or the hog callers of Sonoma. On the other hand, you only live one time, so why not do something new? Why not share the enthusiasm of those who have a passion for what they do?

 Last week, I went on my first lichen walk. We took off into the coastal woodland that holds trees, fungus and long hairy beards of Spanish moss, or so I thought. It turns out true Spanish moss grows only in the south and as far west as southern Texas.

With a simple hand lens, our leader revealed a whole world of activity on a leaf. This leaf had two small critters living on it – a tiny spider and a springtail bug. The bright green topside had a fine dusting of powder our leader said is an opportunistic fungus that only grows on that tree. 

Turning the leaf over to the dull underside, everything changes. No less than three species of lichen were living there and two, maybe three different fungus. Turns out that some lichen only grow with a supporting fungus so closely tied together that their codependent spore travel together, floating off to latch onto an unsuspecting leaf and feed one another as they grow and reproduce. 

On the tip of the underside of this leaf, an aggressive colony of fungi was building a herd of juice-sucking hypoid tendrils to feed on the rich juices. After two hours of study, I again became aware of the fascinating drama of life and death taking place around us – predator and prey, codependent food chains and the small tragedies going on around us. I did not join the Lichen Society, but I will get the lichen field guide and carry a hand lens so that I can enjoy the micro drama.


Bill Hanson is a Sonoma County native and a lifelong sportsman. He is the former president of the Sonoma County Mycological Association. Look for his column in The Community Voice each week.

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