5 takeways: 1

…from Nature Forward’s introductory class in lichens of Maryland, taught by Natalie Howe, in the NHFS program. (Without the goofy puns.)

1. Most naturalists understand a lichen to be a symbiosis between a fungus and a photosynthetic organism, either an alga or a cyanobacterium. The fungus provides water and protection for the photosymbiont. Typically, in a structure called a thallus, the photosymbiont is sandwiched between layers of the fungus (the mycobiont)—sort of like a lasagna. In turn, the fungus receives sugars produced by the cyanobacterium or alga.

But the association may be much more complex, with other types of organisms participating. These can include secondary algae, non-photosynthetic bacteria, yeasts, protists, and viruses. On the lichen’s surface, the role of microinvertebrates like tardigrades and nematodes is being explored.

So, what is a fungus? Your answer might depend on whether you see the duck or the rabbit. Trevor Goward, in a brief paper in Evansia, writes,

Next time you pause to contemplate a lichen, consider the strong likelihood that whatever it is you see staring back at you – fungus, alga, thallus, parasitism, mutualism, agriculture, gall, growth chamber, or farmstead – in some way reflects the particular mindset you bring to it; that what you’re looking at is really a face in the mirror; and that the face in the mirror is very much your own.

2. In many cases, you’ll have to be content with an identification to genus, especially in the field. The identification keys often depend on

  • testing the chemistry of the lichen, either with reagents like KOH and phenylenediamine,
  • examining spores with a microscope,
  • or performing TLC (thin-layer chromatography) back in the lab.

Just to make things more complicated, the bushy “reindeer lichens” that you may have seen growing on soil, formerly in the genus Cladina, are now in the very diverse genus Cladonia, which includes various organisms named pixie cup, British soldiers, and powderhorn lichens. Cladonia gets its own key in the guides.

All that said, you can usually make an ID limited to a group of a few species, and often use geography and habitat to reduce your choices even more.

Even if you don’t intend to make a field ID, break out your hand lens (you did bring your hand lens, right?) to examine the tiny cilia on a Parmotrema ruffle lichen, the minute lobes of Candleflame Lichen (Candelaria concolor), and the wee horns of Cladonia ochrochlora.

3. Studying lichens in the field is great if you like buying new gear, like a macro lens for your SLR, or a flashlight that throws ultraviolet light. Lichens in the genus Pyxine are drab gray in visible light, but they light up in brilliant yellow under UV. Somewhat like green plants that show red in their basal rosettes, lichens that reflect UV light do so to avoid being scorched by too much light.

4. With your eye this close to the substrate, you’ll meet lichen-adjacent organisms. Mosses growing on soil can provide a moist microhabitat for lichens; myxomycetes are doing their own thing; liverworts like Frullania sp. growing on tree bark might fool you; certain fungi are lichen parasites; and then there are ordinary “non-lichenized” fungi doing what they usually do, decomposing.

5. Natalie describes the lichen community as the “quiet Lorax.” Despite what we know about many lichen species’ sensitivity to air pollution (SO2, NH3, NOx, and O3), only two species are listed under the Endangered Species Act (Cetradonia linearis and Cladonia perforata). Perhaps more surprising, no non-lichenized fungi are listed. The United States does not maintain a nationwide Red List for fungi.

Five white tufts

lunchTIL, thanks to Arthur V. Evans’ recent Beetles of Eastern North America, that a Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica) has five white tufts along each side of the abdomen. You can just make them out in this image I snapped a couple of summers ago at Black Hill of a Wheel Bug (Arilus cristatus) munching on one of the beetles.

Wakefield Park grasses

Alan Ford led a workshop on grass ID at Wakefield Park for the Potowmack Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society. Tips and reminders of some training that I took from Cris Fleming a couple of years ago. Grasses are sneaky hard to get into good focus with my happy snap camera, so most of my images remain on my hard drive.

Five gleanings:

  • Look for a bend in the awn to identify Indian Grass to species, Sorghastrum nutans.
  • When you see arundinacea or its derivatives in a species name, it’s a hint that the organism is large, with a reference to the large Bamboo Orchid, Arundina sp.
  • Broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus var. virginicus) is an early colonizer. When you see it give way to Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) (purple sheaths alternating with green internodes), you’re dealing with a well-established meadow.
  • Leersia virginica is a lookalike for the invasive Japanese Stilt-grass (Microstegium vimineum). The stilt-grass pulls up out of the ground easily, but Leersia does not.
  • Look and feel for stiff horizontal hairs on the sheath of Deer-tongue Grass (Dicanthelium clandestinum). Some of the panic grasses have recently been moved into the genera Coleataenia and Dicanthelium (twice-flowering [each year]).

not so purple nowI did get an acceptable image of the jizz of the delicate open panicles of Purple Love Grass (Eragrostis spectabilis), a species that many people love and that I have trouble recognizing.


Five last vocabulary builders from Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie. Most of these appear over and over again in the book:

la fente
slit, as between the slats of a jalousie
la pente
to flatten
étendu (p.p. of étendre)
outstretched, extensive
l’accoudoir (m.)

Robbe-Grillet decoded

Five words and phrases from Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie that I know I never learned in high school:

le margouillat
any of various species of lizard; on the narrator’s banana plantation, probably the gecko Hemidactylus frenatus
l’igname (f.)
yam, of genus Dioscorea
la crémone
window-latch, perhaps named for the city of the same name
zone blanche
“blank area”, in Richard Howard’s translation; blanc having the senses of “unwritten”, “innocent”

A… n’est plus à la fenêtre. Ni celle-ci ni aucune des deux autres ne révèle sa présence dans la pièce. Et il n’y a plus de raison pour la supposer dans l’une quelconque des trois zones blanches, plutôt que dans une autre.

A… is no longer at the window. Neither this window nor either of the two others reveals her presence in the room. And there is no longer any reason to suppose her in any one of the three blank areas rather than in any other.

dans le sens inverse des aiguilles d’une montre


Five words from Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie that I had to look up and probably have unlearned since high school:

en revanche
on the other hand
to remain
any, with connotations of ordinary, banality; n’importe lequel
to spread open
la paroi
interior partition, wall

Pretty bird

Five North American birds that I find exceptionally beautiful to look at. I’ve been fortunate to see all of these, at one time or another.

  • Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus). The bright red in the axils is something special.
  • American Kestrel (Falco sparverius). The adult male is a delicate sonata of rufous, black, and slate blue.
  • Sanderling (Calidris alba). It’s the grayscale basic plumage that I find especially fine.
  • Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris). The male is a little flashy: a guilty pleasure.
  • Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus). I like the subtle iridescence of all the grackles. The Great-tailed has the mostest in the tail department.

Winter weeds at Woodend

Five nature fun facts from today’s winter weeds workshop with Stephanie Mason:

  • The generic name for the tickseed sunflowers, Bidens (two-toothed), describes the two-barbed achenes that are typical fruit of the various species.
  • Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) is also known as Bead Fern. Look at the spore cases along the fronds in winter to see why.
  • The slender seed pod of Dogbane (Apocynum sp.) looks like a mustard’s silique, but it’s actually a follicle that splits open on one side.
  • Broom Sedge (Andropogon virginicus) is not a sedge, but a grass, and it rather resembles Little Bluestem.
  • A little while ago, I had tumbled to the nomenclatural connection between Cardueline finches and Carduus thistles. But what I didn’t know, as Stephanie explained, is that goldfinches delay breeding into the summer, when thistles are about to set seed. Rather than feeding nestlings insects, as is the norm with songbirds, the parents regurgitate “thistle milk” for their young.

Some lists: 10

Five (and five more) obsolete common names for birds, taken from the index to Richard H. Pough, Audubon Bird Guide: Small Land Birds of Eastern & Central North America from Southern Texas to Central Greenland, 1946 and 1949, and their modern synonyms.

Lichtenstein’s Oriole
Altamira Oriole (Icterus gularis). M. Heinrich Lichtenstein (1780-1857) was honored by Johann Wagler by naming the oriole for him.
Bandit Warbler
Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). The old name has a lot more mojo.
Batchelder’s Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). Another eponym that perhaps was a casualty of lumping species together, in this case Gairdner’s Woodpecker, Nelson’s, and Willow.
Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). I’d say, “like it sounds,” but the bird doesn’t sound like that at all.
Forest Chippy
Worm-eating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivora). Described in the field guides as having voice like a Chipping Sparrow.
Grease Bird
Gray Jay (Perisoreus canadensis). Along with several other equally uncomplimentary names.
Huckleberry Bird
Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla). Apparently a preferred nesting substrate.
Black-whiskered Vireo (Vireo altiloquus). This name-sayer name actually works. It’s also known as Whip-Tom-Kelly. Poor Tom.
Pork and Beans
Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor). Yet again, supposedly onomatopoetic. I don’t hear it.
Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa). Another case where the old name is short, descriptive, and to the point, while the new one reads like a committee report. Sort of like the difference between the original Metro station names and the hyphenated jawbreakers we have today.


  • A ribbon marker sewn into a book binding; a store full of office supplies; a cable channel dedicated to ice hockey.
  • Elections happen every two years (plus the off-year Virginia governor’s race), even if I don’t always like the outcome.
  • (And this is not always the case:) My onsite consulting job: interesting projects; smart, articulate people to work with; sane project managers; a stimulating location downtown; a (usually) predictable, comfortable commute.
  • Art, unlike life, lets you rehearse.
  • Indoor plumbing.

What you don’t want to hear at adjudication

  • “that Star Trek moment”
  • “it seemed to get in your way”
  • “baffled”
  • “would urge you to reconsider”
  • your own voice, explaining

after the showFortunately, Leta and her team didn’t hear anything like these after their lovely presentation of Clean, by Audrey Cefaly, at ESTA in Newark, Del., but rather a few constructive suggestions (“maybe a puddle of water at the opening”) and lots of compliments like “detailed,” “believable,” and “specific.”