One of my favorite places on our farm is the “flat rock” area that covers about 5 acres. There is little to no topsoil there, yet it hosts a diverse and fascinating ecosystem. There are white pine, clump birch, burr oak, poplar, soft maples, and low bush blueberries there; but my favorite part about the area is the vast number of mosses and lichens. The most stunning of these is the British Soldier.
Lichens are a very interesting creature, being not one organism, but a combination of a fungus and an algae in a symbiotic relationship creating a new organism. The British Soldier is a combination of the fungus Cladonia cristatella and the algae Trebouxia erici. The fungus “houses” the algae and the algae “feeds” the fungus. The red color, from which comes the name “British Soldier”, might look at first glance like flowers. These are not actually flowers but spores that are dispersed to propagate the fungus. These spores will only produce another British Soldier lichen if it comes in contact with the Trebouxia erici algae. The lichen can also produce new lichens from pieces that fall off, but only if they fall into the proper growing medium and conditions. These tiny beauties are slow growers, gaining only a millimeter or two of growth per year. British Soldiers don’t make spores until the fourth year.
British Soldier lichens grow on rotting wood, soil, and stumps, but most of ours are growing on rocks above the surface, which have tiny amounts of soil on them. They are very small and you must pay close attention and practice the art of observation to find them. Lichens not only help break down wood into soil, they also fix nitrogen from the air and make it available to other plants. Insects use lichens for shelter and whitetails, turkeys, and even the lowly vole use them for food. You can use the British Soldier lichen to make a wine colored natural dye as well.
The photo below is of British Soldier lichens found on our farm. Photo taken by my son John.