The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 9, 2007


Biodiversity Corner: Lipstick lichen

Today is Carmen Miranda's birthday and in less than a week it will be Valentine's Day. Carmen is reported to have said "More affectionate than a kiss is a well done hug, in someone that you love. Have you ever noticed how I can give delicious hugs?" Carmen would be happy to know that the Carlisle woods harbor huggers. Mosses and liverworts were among the original tree huggers. That python of the plant world, the Oriental Bittersweet, is hugging everything in sight, including itself. Red foxes were seen at Great Brook Farm on January 28 engaged in a mating embrace, and as Larry Millman writes in Northern Latitudes, the lichen "will still grasp the rock of my choice with a full-bodied embrace." The two organisms, fungi and algae, that make up lichens are bound together in lifelong relationships which are as much embranglement as embrace. The fungal threads make a home — a cage — in which the algae live. Fungi cannot make their own food. The algae are photosynthetic and manufacture food, enough for themselves and the fungi. Carmen might recognize the lichen embrace as delicious — at least for the fungus. By this tortuous route, I have arrived at the topic for the week, the lipstick lichen, which like Carmen has a brightly colored fruiting thing on, its head.

Name. The lipstick lichen is Cladonia macilenta or Cladonia bacillaris. Altogether there are 128 species of Cladonia in North America, several of which are red-headed with the most familiar being the British Soldiers lichen, Cladonia cristatella. The names macilenta and bacillaris are used to define two "races" of this lichen which have common morphology but differ in their chemical composition. Both names refer to the shape of the podetia with macilenta meaning thin, lean, meager, or even starved and bacillaris meaning in the form of small rods or sticks. Scientific names of lichens are actually the name of the fungal component since it uniquely defines the structure of the lichen.

When and where found. I found the lipstick lichen in the waste land beyond the top parking lot at Banta-Davis on January 28. It is growing on the ground and sharing the habitat with some very extreme British Soldiers the likes of which my lichen teacher has not seen before. Lipstick lichen also grows on old wood and occasionally on rock, especially the macilenta race.

Identifying characteristics. Cladonia lichens start life as little scaly squamules. As the lichen develops, it forms stalks called podetia which eventually make up the bulk of the lichen. The lichen colonies or clumps at Banta-Davis are up to three inches across. The spore-producing components, called apothecia, sit on top of the podetia. In the lipstick lichen the podetia are grayish-green, 10 to 30 millimeters tall, and usually unbranched. The lipstick name suggests a rigid form and doesn't do justice to the sinuous suggestion in the podetia. I think they more resemble a cluster of slender green worms reaching up toward the light. To identify this lichen you need to examine the podetia with a magnifying lens and confirm the presence of tiny soredia — little clusters of lichen material that can rub off and form new colonies, vegetatively. The apothecia are bright red and convex but a little understated for Carmen's birthday. While she didn't shun lipstick, she is a closer kindred spirit of the British Soldier with its larger, bolder fruiting bodies on its head.

References. Lichens of North America, by Brodo, Sharnoff and Sharnoff.

Submissions for the Biodiversity Corner are encouraged from everyone. You can write the column or tell me what you saw and I will write it. The organism doesn't have to be unusual. The only requirements are that it exists in the wild and was seen in Carlisle. Send a note to

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