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 also like lichen. They fascinate me, but whenever I start researching them, I get bogged down by it all. Thank you for sharing your new knowledge and wonderful photographs.

    1. I considered buying a book as the library one was not primarily about identification, but decided against it. I could just see it being the type of subject where science is rapidly changing the names too.

  2. Like you, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to lichen recently. But like you, I’ve decided that a study of the ins and outs of the – which one is this? – may not be for me. I’ll stick to the aesthetic experience.

  3. You have some fabulous lichen photos here. Like you, I am keen on the naming of names but there are some areas for instance, ferns and succulents, where I have decided to just enjoy them and not worry about names. Although I still do. A bit. But lichens, no, we really do just have to enjoy the patterns they make.

    1. I never like to identify something here unless I am confident, and I felt unlikely to meet the burden of proof required without outside help. And then the number of different ones per rock is prohibitive.

  4. Being a lichen is a lifestyle choice … hmmm. Not for me, I fear! But a fascinating post, thanks. I do sometimes notice lichens and even take a photo, but I’ve never bothered to learn about them.

  5. Lichens have their own beauty and I have enjoyed looking at the variety you found. Someone said that they are influenced by the pollutants in the air?

    1. Many are killed by industrial and coal-burning pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, so their absence or presence is a barometers of air quality. Their size can be used to date things back thousands of years too.

  6. Who knew there was an entire world right there, clinging to rocks?? You opened my eyes to the miniature and slowly evolving world of lichens!! I must agree with you– the analysis of the technical names and the distinctions is for someone else. I love how you phrased it: “I’ll be calling them all Licheny Mclichenface!” Thanks so much for sharing what you’ve learned, Susan!

    1. Thanks for giving me a good excuse to share them. You almost have to look closely to find the interest in these. Seen from afar they are just a blur. I wonder if in a future society we might not feel so much need to pressure wash them.

  7. Your pictures have shown and your text explained why they are so fascinating. Given the faces you have found I’m sure a Mickey must be possible

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