October 22 2020

If one wakes up at 1am worrying about some personal issue really better left alone, it is a very good idea to get out a plant book and read up on bryophytes and lichens. Safer territory, and may induce drowsiness.

I had two questions I wanted answers to: are lichens plants and what were those beautiful fairy like rings growing on rocks I saw in the mountains? I’ve been known, like many gardeners I think, to carry home rocks to put in my garden just because of the lichens growing on them without thinking to ask just what they were. Turns out, lichens are more than one organism living together in a symbiotic relationship-a fungi that cannot photosynthesize so lives together with an algae which can. The partner can be either algae (green) or cyanobacterium (blue-green) or sometimes both. Recently, they have discovered that another fungi is also a part of lichens.

There are around 1,000 kinds of lichens in the Rocky Mountains, a majority of which you will need a microscope to identify called microlichens. The rest (about 400) are macrolichens, big enough to see with your eyes though a hand lens will get you a wonderful close up view. There are nifty little microscopes that hook up to your cell phone to show the picture enlarged.

There’s lots more to learn about lichens, but at least I have a start. There are the most delightful names for lichens- Pixie Cups, Freckle Pelt, Dog Pelt, Frosted Rocktripe, Powdered Paw, Colorado Rockfrog, and Brown-Eyed Sunshine. Who knew?

Now, about those bryophytes, otherwise known as mosses, liverworts, and hornworts. My favorite plant book- Plants of the Rocky Mountains (Lone Pine Field Guide, Kershaw, MacKinnon, & Pojar) does not cover hornworts as they are a small group from all over the world. It says most of the bryophytes found here are mosses and liverworts of which many are found in the Southern Hemisphere also. The technical differences between the two are explained in the book.

I think moss gardens are pretty cool and I will look at them through new eyes now that I possess a tiny bit of knowledge. I recently helped someone scrape some mosses off cement steps (in Portland, Oregon where they grow prolifically). When we brought brown dried up ones into the house and wet them, they turned green almost immediately-neat to watch.

But by far the most beautiful mosses I have ever seen (could have been partly liverworts, I don’t know) were growing on solid rock above Lake Como in Montana. Words cannot do justice to these exquisite miniature gardens. Growing roughly in circles, there were concentric rings of different color mosses, from lime green to brown, with a slightly raised center mound of tiny flowers. I didn’t have my plant book or hand lens with me so I couldn’t positively identify all the flowers, but there were shooting stars, a monkey flower (maybe Mountain), a saxifrage, a tiny onion family flower, and the tiniest little blue flower with leaves like bedstraw. One doesn’t need to know all the details to be smitten with nature’s wonders and besides, now I’ll have to go back.

I always sleep better after a hike in the mountains anyway.