Lichens on Stone Walls in Darwen, Lancashire

Silvery bronze lichens on a dry stone wall in Darwen, Lancashire

Over the last few months I’ve been paying attention to lichens. The trouble is, the more closely you look, the more questions arise.

Stone wall covered in lichens

After a while the boundary between stone and lichen seems to blur. Are some of these decorative patterns the stone itself, or are they all lichens?

Lichen with leaf-like structures
Inspiration for green men?

Something rich is going on that we rarely pause to think about.

I found myself wondering why stone walls in some parts of Darwen have many lichens and others have none. Could the lichens have been imported together with the stones? But the wall looked old, and surely if our climate didn’t suit them, they would not be thriving.

Raised oval lichen with moss

Wikipedia taught me about the general types of lichens. There are ones that are shrubby, powdery, crusty, leafy (flat or with raised edges), and even some that look like hieroglyphics. It’s not clear cut as the types may overlap.

Powdery and crusty lichens
Powdery and crusty lichens

I wanted to know more and to be able to identify some of the more common lichens we have on Darwen’s dry stone walls.

Lichens with black

After discovering that an internet search for ‘lichens with black spots’ brings up adverts for patio cleaners, I turned to the library and snapped up Lichens by Oliver Gilbert, my sole choice.

It all turns out to be a bit more complicated than I’d hoped. Being a lichen is a lifestyle choice some types of fungus may adopt, very roughly analogous to living in a commune with one or more partners.

Yellow lichen alongside moss on a stone
Yellow lichen

We don’t have folk names for most lichens, and the terms used to describe them are not in common parlance.

Blue-grey lichen
Blue-grey lichen

Botanical names are based on the fungus, but a fungus that takes one form when it envelops partner A may also be able to partner with B, when it would take a different form. Even experts struggle to conclusively identify lichens without chemical tests.

Raised type of lichen
Raised type of lichen

To sort through the puzzle, Oliver Gilbert recommends carrying a lichenologist’s bag with a stout knife, observes that ‘some people are never seen with anything less than a 1.5kg club hammer’ and prudently suggests carrying a spare chisel ‘as they are easily mislaid’. It is normal to carry two or three reagents: potassium hydroxide solution and fresh bleach are essential; paraphenylenediamine is handy.

I can only hope lichenologists are not stopped and searched by the police.

A black and white picture in the book shows ten lichen fanciers, each with a canvas bag over their shoulder, observing with varying degrees of attention an old tree that does not appear to have any lichens on it.

Various lichens on a boulder in Darwen, Lancashire

I’m forced to conclude lichenology is not for me – the naming part at least. I’ll be calling them all Licheny Mclichenface.

But I will carry on admiring their subtle colours and patterns during local walks.

I learned some facts that will stay with me, for example, that lichens are some of the slowest growing things on earth, in extreme cases growing less than 3 mm (1/5 of an inch) in a century.

Flat, powdery lichens with hints of lilac, aqua, brown and yellow
Lichens with hints of lilac, aqua, brown and yellow

And that many patches of lichen we see are actually tiny gardens – a harmonious mixture of different lichens and mosses. Once I realised that, I seemed to see them with new eyes.

Lichen with raised black dots

Some are more formal like miniature Japanese gardens, while others are free and easy combinations like cottage gardens.

Garden of mosses and lichens
Garden of mosses and lichens

Lichens remind me I’m really not cut out for a proper, scholarly approach to plants. For those of you who who are, here’s another thought. How weird is it that some lichens are formed from three different kingdoms of life (perhaps four), all in one life form?

Lichens on stone in NW England

For any regular readers who have made it this far, I’m ending with a confession. All the while I was out taking pictures, I was looking for a hidden Mickey. I haven’t found one yet but it’s only a matter of time.

Until then, I’ll leave you with a bear and a pig, in lichen form…

Lichens like a bear's face

Lichen shaped like a pig's face

… and with a chance find that reminded me of the owl pellets Dad used to bring home to dissect for my sister and me when we were youngsters:

Tiny bones on a lichen covered stone
Tiny bones on a lichen-crusted stone wall

Shared for the Lens-Artists Challenge: Focusing On The Details.

61 Replies to “Lichens on Stone Walls in Darwen, Lancashire”

    1. I’m glad you think so. I confess I was a little worried whether it would interest anyone but me when I started writing!

    1. I suppose we might think the same of plants if we had to learn them all in one go and had never heard the names of any of them.

  1. This is, without question, one of the most interesting and amusing pieces on lichens that I’ve found. In fact, it’s the only article about lichens that’s managed to hold my attention through its entirety. When I got to Licheny Mclichenface, I was laughing aloud. I have learned to recognize the difference between lichens and mosses (sometimes), and I can spot a couple of species that fruit rather colorfully, but that’s it. There are cute little ones that grow on docks and boat swim platforms at the marinas; maybe I should start by trying to identify them.

    1. Thanks for your very kind words. I’m glad I haven’t discouraged you from trying to identify yours. We have some of the shrubby types on our trees, rather like tiny clumps of Spanish moss, but peppermint green.

  2. Superb photos, Susan. It appears you were able to spot and photograph some wonderful examples.
    The symmetrical black one was interesting and I especially liked the haphazard collection on the one stone below that shot.
    Thanks for including the information too. I found it fascinating reading, but like you, I wouldn’t worry too much about the naming of each lichen. 🙂

    1. I had wondered whether someone would leave a comment and tell me how wrong I am and how easy it is to learn them, but so far, nothing along those lines.

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