About Lichen, Moss and Liverwort

old mans beard lichen

Lichen is one of my favorite of all the tiny trinkets of the forest, right behind tall spore stalks and ghost pipe plants. Its complex little structures of all types are out of a miniature fairytale world. When on hikes to seek out materials we make sure to only take responsible amounts to practice sustainable moss and lichen collection. This article provides a well-rounded introduction to moss with many helpful links.

Sustainable collection is key to the success of our business, the health of our land, and as our homage to Mother Nature for providing the theme of our ever-evolving art. Lichens are incredibly slow-growing and long-lived. In remote places, some lichens live thousands of years. On the mountainside here, there is a fair amount of ledge which in some areas is completely carpeted with lush mosses.

2 Reasons why sustainable collection and management is important for lichen and moss, and our climate

  1. Slow growth rate make many mosses and lichens and easy to over-harvest and interrupt the natural balance in both the localized ecosystem but also in a global perspective as natural carbon sequestration sinks.
  2. The beauty of our land. I would never put our art before the natural beauty of nature by slicing off live birch bark, swaths of moss carpet off the ledges or tip the tree in our yard.

Lichens can grow in extremely inhospitable conditions including high peaks like this photo of Mt. Katahdin this spring. Astonishingly, lichens can even grow on stabilized sand dunes.

peak of mount Katahdin lichen on the rocks

It’s super tempting to tear off a huge hunk of these precious plants and roll it up, slip into my pack basket and bring it home when I’m out hiking the property. Instead I pick and little here and there and often tuck away only the knowledge of where a lichen-covered tree has fallen and continue my adventure back home with only a handful and leave the rest for later, as I need it.

Lichen is used as an indicator of localized air quality due to their uptake of nutrients exclusively from air and water contact. Toxins extracted from lichens are able to determine the amount of toxins commonly found in the air in that area.

Since they’re made up of a fungus and an alga bacteria that performs photosynthesis happily living together, lichens present a challenge for researchers, they can prove difficult to tease out a single DNA sequence. In contrast, the often commonly confused liverwort has only a single set of genetic information.

Acrocarpous moss spores take six months just to bond to the surface of their new home, followed by another year to mature to a single stalk. Moss was the first plant to creep up out of the water as algae and slowly evolve to gain the traits of moss, which then led to lichens and *liverworts. In cooler climates it grows about 1/8-inch annually.

*Here’s an with in-depth information on liverworts: Evolution and Diversity of Green and Land Plants

Moss can hibernate for years and regenerate when the environmental conditions become more favorable. Due to their surprising ability to grow, even in Antarctica, they are found on every continent. They can even be easily grown in a terrarium, which have been growing in popularity and we plan to begin offering in late spring.

  • About Lichen, Moss and Liverwort 1
  • lichen filled crystal ball globe magical terrarium in maine
  • About Lichen, Moss and Liverwort 2
  • About Lichen, Moss and Liverwort 3
  • red lichen pendant with silver mushroom, hematite and crystal beads
  • old man beard's hanging green lichen on a branch
  • old man's beard jewelry and art by maine forest artistry
  • what is a liverwort? lichen and moss ID
  • a boh with spruce in northern maine where the roads have no names

study by the British Antarctic Survey and Reading University proved moss that had been frozen for 1,530 years can wake up and pick right up where it left off. Antarctic moss found on Elephant Island, where Ernest Shackleton’s expedition was holed up for over four months, date back 6,000 years.

natural lichen necklace from maine with silver charms
These pendants are strips of lichen and liverwort on birch bark directly from the tree, to the press, cast and finished by hand in our home studio and come with a choice of charms.

For us, it’s not the ethical thing to do as a steward to this land. It falls on us to ensure it’s balance and continued health. A pinch here, a patch there and only from clusters in well established areas.

In addition to the local ecosystem, the Earth as a whole benefits on sustainable moss and lichen collection

paper birch tree bark with moss

Recent studies in rainforests have shown mosses and lichens are more responsible for air and ozone quality than even imagined. Mosses have a higher carbon offset than all the trees combined globally. They intake nutrients required for life through dew, rain and fog without using roots. The structure connecting them to the rock, bark or soil does not take in water.

Mosses don’t flower, fruit or produce seeds. For reproduction, they produce asexual spore structures.

New plants re-spawn from tiny remnants of an existing live bits from another plant under the right conditions. This is especially seen with fern moss which fan out in shoots and carpet large areas, scale tree trunks and rocks.

Wriggly arthropod micro-pollinators assist with moss reproduction

The moss reproductive process looks a great deal like with happens with flowers then previously thought. It had been widely accepted that mosses used water migration and capillary action to move the sperm within the layer of moss. Teeny-weeny insects act like bees as they wander through the tangled moss masses. The sperm readily attach themselves to the eggs as the damp micro-creatures scurry about rubbing against them. Female moss emits a hormone luring in the little critters and their hitchhikers to the eggs.

It’s still uncertain of what expending that additional energy is worth to the the teeny weeny arthropods or if they were simply duped by the mosses’ aroma and gets nothing for its efforts. Oribatid mites are the most numerous arthropods in forest soils. These microorganisms are essential to break down organic matter. There are currently 12,000 identified Oribatid species and researchers estimate there may be 60,000 to 120,000 species.

Figure 2 - Diversity of oribatid mites, with their scientific names.
Oribatid mites would be terrifying if they were the size of cars, am I right? Slide B–yikes.

In addition to water, scents and micro-pollinators, moss sperms may also be released from a little pod or case catapulting themselves away from the mother plant helping them to spread diversely and to clone asexually.

About Lichen, Moss and Liverwort 4
Nature’s toilet. Padded, just like grandma’s in the 80’s. If you want to squat on a bit of nostalgia you can still buy bum shag at Bed Bath and Beyond. Here’s a fun mini rabbit hole side note about why carpeted toilet seats took toilets by the brim across the US. Does anyone else see a polish chicken?

Birds often use mosses to line their nests each spring as the fly to Maine for the breeding season and to take advantage of the spring insect boom here.

Lichens have been used for many purposes in our human history. They have been used for clothing and even for sustenance in more destitute times. Lichens are used today in toothpastes, deodorants, lotions among many other products. They are widely researched for antibiotic properties and some new species are still being discovered—then lost and hopefully rediscovered.

Beautiful patterns and spots of lichens often adorn the tombstones and monuments at graveyards and make wonderful places to view diverse species of lichens. I find so much on the various landscapes of our land here in Maine.

Here is a great website with more information about mosses.

A dark forest stream in the forest of Maine with lush mossy banks and sleepy trees standing in the morning fog.
This stream is seasonally filled by the spring snow melt. It’s in the heart of the forest of Maine and lined with lush mossy banks. A leaning cedar holds firmly to a bank as a spruce on the opposite bank lays resting halfway up another tree, dead. Sleepy trees watch as we pass in the morning fog as the dark stream slips silently by.

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