Spring Brings Lichen & Magical Moss

– by local artist and writer, Susan Snyder

At the Ogden Nature Center, spring doesn’t exactly burst into bloom. It tiptoes in along muddy trails that harbor patches of icy snow in shady spots. It brings the return of Canada Geese and the trilling of Red-winged Black- birds around Teal Pond in February. We hear American Robin's “Cheeri-up! Cheeri-O!” from the shrubs and treetops as we move into March. Then, the rowdy calls of Western Chorus Frogs come soon after, signaling spring’s official arrival.

In the spring we are used to seeing fallen trees in the shaded areas, sheathed in thick green lichens and moss. Often spoken in the same sentence – but not the same thing – moss is any number of species of plants that thrive on wet, cool, shaded environs. Lichens, on the other hand, is a combination of organisms – algae and fungi – that work together to the benefit of each.

The symbiotic relationship of lichens allows fungi to collect and store water that is used by the algae. In turn, the algae – a plant – performs photosynthesis and provides energy for the fungi to grow and oxygen for us to breathe. This symbiotic relationship allows lichens to flourish on the oddest of surfaces – even stone, if it is shady and wet enough.

Moss is almost always present in some form on the fallen trees you'll find in the shady portion of Habitat Trail. But after a lot of rain and snow, it erupts in poofy green mats that are soft as velvet. Look closely, and you might see the tiny stars of the Syntrichia ruralis, also knowns a “Star Moss” or “Great Hairy Screw Moss.”

A second-grader exploring the trails with her class field trip ran her fingers over a thick cluster of moss and asked, “But why is it here? Why does it grow?”

Great question, actually. We marvel every time these mosses show up around here, but rarely consider the good they do. Moss is one of nature’s sponges. It soaks up and holds mois- ture, helping to maintain a wet environment in the area around it, which allows other organ- isms to grow – like lichens. Woodlands thrive when there is moss about.

Lichens also play an important ecological role. The moisture-providing fungi allows algae to thrive in places it otherwise might not, providing vast amounts of algae worldwide. Meanwhile, algae is working hard to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into oxygen through photosynthesis. Scientists estimate about 70% of the world’s oxygen comes from algae – most in the form of oceanic phyto- plankton. Still, the importance of terrestrial algae should not be underestimated. Moss and lichens keep wooded areas looking, feeling, and smelling fresh and green.

“It’s so pretty,” that curious field trip explorer said. She’s absolutely right. It is.

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