Easy to see why it’s called “Lace Lichen.” So soft and finely patterned, like a delicate lacy sleeve for the tree. Maybe a veil or stole, nature is consecrating oak and pine and cypress. While it looks fragile, like a precious hand-knit doily, lace lichen is more like a sturdy woven fishing net, holding strong in windy coastal storms.
Point Lobos State Reserve guests often assume it is a deadly fungus killing the trees, insisting we remove it quickly to save the forest. No, we reply, lace lichen is actually good for the tree. It acts as a drip system, collecting nighttime dew and then dripping it, like a wet towel, to the roots; trees draped with lichen can withstand drought unlike their naked cousins.
It is so soft and absorbent that the native folks of the Central Coast used lace lichen for baby diapers and menstrual pads. Thanks, lichen for swabbing softly our natural fluids.
We see less of it in city parks because it is a barometer of air quality – you find it only where the air is free of chemicals. Like the canary dead in the coal mine, the absence of lichen in urban sprawl says, “Danger ahead!”
And what exactly is lichen? It’s the equal partnership of two organisms, fungus and algae, in symbiosis. The fungus provides the structure, the algae the food. We all need something to hold on to, and we all need something to eat. The Point Lobos Rangers say the fungus and algae “take a lichen to each other.”
You get the point – we love our lace lichen. So we were thrilled that Governor Brown recently signed a bill designating lace lichen as our state lichen! Naturally, ours is the very first state even to name an official state lichen, and of the 1800 California lichens, the lace lichen was singled out for honors. It joins all our other cool state symbols – grizzly, poppy, golden trout, garibaldi fish, gold, redwood, quail.....
Do you need me to break down the Gospel According to Lichen?
-I set before you the ways of lichen and death; chose life.
-We all need someone we can lean on. (And if you want it, you can lean on me.)
-I was naked and you clothed me. And sopped up after me.
-Appearances are deceiving. What looks harmful may be a blessing.
-How great Thou art.
Photo: Holly Benson, California Lichen Society