"Freddy Fungus and Alice Alga took a 'lichen' to each other. Now it's said their marriage is on the rocks." A titter of laughter followed this professional humor told by lichenologist Rich Hyerczyk during a hike at Camp Wokanda park grounds.
"Freddy Fungus and Alice Alga took a 'lichen' to each other. Now it's said their marriage is on the rocks." A titter of laughter followed this professional humor told by lichenologist Rich Hyerczyk during a hike at Camp Wokanda park grounds. Hyerczyk, 48, became fascinated with the science and folklore of lichen when he was a student at Saint Xavier University in Chicago. He was in Peoria recently for a "Lichen Foray" at Camp Wokanda sponsored by Forest Park Nature Center. Lichen, Hyerczyk told the group, is not a single organism. It's a marriage of fungus and alga. Scientists have been able to separate lichen into its component fungus and alga, grow the components in separate petri dishes, but never have scientists been able to recombine the two to form lichen. That combination occurs only and mysteriously in nature. In some cases, lichen includes a fungus that cannot survive without its algal partner. Mike Miller, chief naturalist at Forest Park, said there is no compendium of lichen found in the Peoria area. In a survey of herbariums at the University of Illinois, Field Museum, Morton Arboretum and Illinois Natural History Survey, only one common lichen was collected and identified from Peoria County. "There's only one. We don't have a list. We don't know what is here," Miller said. "We have no real building block or official record." Hyerczyk identified 29 lichen on his hike in Wokanda and the day before in Singing Woods. He and Miller are hoping this list is the start of an ongoing effort to document lichen in this region. Compared with moss, sedge and fungus, lichen epitomizes the mystery that's still out there, Miller said. Even its role in nature is often not understood. Hyerczyk said hummingbirds seek a specific gray lichen to use in lining their nests. "There is an unknown wisdom in why the hummingbird uses one type of lichen, parmelia sulcata, on its nest," Hyerczyk said, noting that lichen is also used in dyes, for medicinal purposes and as food. "I've tasted a few, and it doesn't taste like much. Not that great," he said. About 30 people showed up for the "Lichen Foray" on a Sunday in late October. The group included Bradley University students, members of the Peoria Academy of Sciences Botany Section and Audubon members among others. Beatrice Potter, the children's book author and illustrator, was a major early contributor to documentation on lichen, Hyerczyk told the group. As a woman with a doctorate, Potter was excluded from presenting at professional conferences. "She did a lot of beautiful moss and lichen drawings but couldn't present papers," he said. Hyerczyk demonstrated a field test for identifying lichen by placing a drop of either Liquid Plumber or bleach on the sample. The drop triggered a chemical change altering the color of the lichen. Color helps with identification. "Sometimes a single lichen takes two or three hours to identify," Hyerczyk said. During the hike through Wokanda, Hyerczyk pointed out that lichen is a self-sustaining organism that does not take nutrition from its substrate. It can grow on anything from stone, concrete and wood to bones or steel. As the forest closes in and becomes more densely shaded, lichens move higher into the canopy of trees. It is not an invasive organism, but it requires a specific combination of moisture, sun and clean air. This move into the canopy is an indicator of the dense shade created by invasive maples. "Lichen is not parasitic, but we don't know if it's symbiotic," Miller said. On the hike was Rick Smith who primarily studies moss but is also knowledgeable about lichen. He said there are about 10,000 lichen, and the list is updated and expanded every six months. "We see few lichen on the ground here because of the shade. They're all up in the canopy, but in Wisconsin, lichen is all over the ground," he said, noting it is difficult to determine the age of lichen. Growth from one year to the next is almost imperceptible. "Some Scandinavian lichen are thousands of years old," he said. "This lichenothelia could be very old. It's on glaciated rock." Almost at the start of the hike, Hyerczyk identified punctelia rudecta, a common gray lichen, growing on a walnut tree. Shortly after that, he identified lichenothelia, a black coal-colored lichen that is found primarily on granite. What becomes apparent in examining lichen in existing collections is that samples from a century ago are much larger than specimens today. "So something has affected the ability of lichen to grow. Air pollutants and particulates. Lichen is a good indicator of air quality. Lichen is a good indicator of diverse habitat parameters," Miller said. Concluding the discussions and field work during this four-part program on "Unseen Resources," Miller said, "Tread softly and keep your eyes and mind open. Lichen is unseen and unknown. We don't know a lot about its role in the environment, particularly about where it will grow. Certain things like sedges and mosses are a little more willing to share their knowledge. Lichen is like a stoic New Englander waiting for us to be smart enough to ask the right question. Mosses and sedges share their story. Lichen is more subtle and encrypted. "When we don't even know what is in the area, we don't know what is lost by the radical changes we make." Clare Howard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.