California, on cutting edge, gets an official state lichen

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Lace lichen. (Photo by Shelly Benson)

Among new state laws taking effect at the beginning of 2016 was one designating lace lichen as the official lichen of California. The organism joins a list of more 30 officially designated state symbols, including the redwood tree, California poppy, purple needlegrass and of course, the California dog-faced butterfly.

State Assemblyman Marc Levine, who sponsored the lace lichen legislation, said, “They are biological indicators of both air quality and climate change around the world.”

That makes lichens notable to ecologists, but the general public might wonder why legislators go to the trouble of picking a state lichen, or a state bird, or fish, or reptile. Levine says it serves to raise the profile of the honored entity. It gets people talking about it. For lichen, it seems to be working.

“We’re getting a lot of feedback that says, that’s so great that California listed a state lichen,” said Shelly Benson, the president of the California Lichen Society. “That response has been really exciting. We went out on a walk January 2nd to celebrate the state lichen and had a great day out you know, just admiring the lichen.”

No doubt, these are heady days for California lichen enthusiasts – and they’re seizing the moment to educate the rest of us about their passion. Clint Kellner, a field ecologist who’s a member of the Lichen Society, explains that a lichen is made up of a fungus and an algae, working together in a symbiotic relationship. “They’re found in deserts, mountaintops, jungles, rain forests,” Kellner said. “They’re found on my roof.”

California is home to almost 2,000 species of lichens, which can vary widely in appearance. “They can either be like a tight thin crust on either a rock or branch,” Benson said,  “They can also be bushy and shrubby in appearance, or they can dangle from a tree like hair.”

Lace lichen hangs from tree branches in strands up to 3 feet long. “They fan out and form these beautiful lobes that have this really intricate lace or netlike pattern to them,” Benson said. “Kind of reminds me of my grandmother’s intricate lace doilies.”

Kellner says that with America’s lichen community fired up over the designation, other states may soon have their own official lichens. For now, though, California is the only state that has designated a lichen.

“It’s another first for California,” Kellner said.