22 August 2021

Lichen workshop

The more you know about something, the more interesting it is. In general, at least! And I am a bit hopeless with plants and plant-like creatures, but I got a taste for them during the walk in the Carneddau with the hyper-enthusiastic ecologist. It inspired me to also engage in the Bioblitz, although my attempts there to learn to recognise grasses only bore little bit of fruit. My enthusiasm wasn't tempered! So when a bit later I saw a lichen workshop advertised, I registered for it. I really like lichen, but they know absolutely nothing about them. Well, except for that they are some symbiotic combination of fungi and either algae or bacteria. But that was it! Time to nerd out and learn some more.

This workshop was in the botanical gardens of the University. I packed my reading glasses and hand lens, and got onto my bike. I was a bit early. I bumped into the lady who runs the place: Natalie, who was really excited they could do workshops like this again. And she made me a cup of tea. Then more participants appeared. None of us had a particular professional reason to do this workshop; we were all just curious. Although I am aware that any knowledge I pick up might come in handy during days in the field. There's nothing wrong with going interdisciplinary!

After a while the two people who led the workshop: Tracey, who was the lichen specialist, and Sean, who was providing backup, appeared. Tracy showed a presentation in which she explains to us the basics about lichen and the various types there are. She also sometimes sent a specimen around. We all had a microscope; I had great fun looking at everything in detail.

After the presentation, and another cup of tea, we went outside. The botanical gardens have an established lichen trail these days! And I think you are the first group to try it out. The trail limits itself to lichen on trees, and it sends you over the terrain, encouraging you to spot a particular species (if you can call them that, given that by definition you need at least two species to make one lichen) per tree. But of course, if we saw anything else interesting, we could look at that too. This was our chance to tap into the knowledge of our lichen specialist!

We were all unashamedly enthusiastic about what we saw: fruticose, foliose and crustose lichen, with both their organs for sexual and asexual reproduction, and their various idiosyncrasies like the Shrek-ear-like suction cups they can have, or the "jam tart" apothecia. Tracy also showed us that shining on them with a UV torch can reveal new information, as can dripping reagents on them as that can make them change colour.

We had also brought a rather extensive guide with us; I had the task of reading out loud anything interesting the book said about the species we were looking at. Generally, there wasn't much; maybe a few words of how vulnerable to air pollution they were. But the first one we encountered (I think it was salted shield lichen) was known to also grow on bones, and had been used in the past for medicinal purposes when it did so. The book mentioned the best lichen were those who had grown on the skull of a man who had been hanged! I didn't see that coming…

I know I still know pretty much nothing about lichen, but there is a start! I think one of these days I should have a quick look in my garden to see what the diversity (or lack thereof) is that I have in there…

 some of the teaching materials

nerding over lichen on a tree

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