Both lichens and mosses are considered non-vascular plants, but the truth is, a lichen is not a plant! Due to their lack of roots, stems, and exterior chloroplasts, lichens receive their own special category. These non-plants can be found in three main forms, crustose, foliose, and fruticose. Crustose lichens can be spotted on the bark of many of Mount St. Helens’ red alder trees, and are usually near flush with their host. Foliose lichens can be distinguished by their signature “leafy” or “foliage” appearance. Fruticose lichens are often found in larger bunches, and are more visible to the eye, but can be easily confused with moss.
A common fruticose lichen of Mount St. Helens is Cladonia rangiferina, or more commonly known as reindeer moss (it is a lichen, not a moss!). This lichen can often be found on trees, or even in patches atop plains of ground cover moss, and can be identified by its fluffy appearance with “antler-like” branches. This lichen, in particular, was my first real observation of the lichens that thrive throughout the volcanic landscape. My curiosities of lichens continue to grow, ever since that first encounter with the unique textures of the reindeer moss. As I continue observing the landscape around me, I grow more curious about new lichens I discover, and their significance.
Lichens are very important because they provide suitable homes for algae to thrive, they clean Earth’s air of pollutants, and they are an icon of the signature Pacific Northwest beauty. Native Americans used lichens for medicinal purposes, and often to make a tea rich in vitamins A and B. Next time you find yourself hiking through Mount St. Helens’ volcanic landscape, look for a lichen, and thank it for all that it does!