Lichens are a bit strange. One guidebook says, “think of lichens as fungi that have discovered agriculture”. Lichens are a fungus (similar to mushrooms) that cultivates algae inside them. The algae inside are protected (a win for them, which is why they live there), and through photosynthesis, generate carbohydrates, vitamins and proteins that the fungus lives on. The ultimate in symbiotic relationships.
There are over 400 visible macrolichen species in the Rockies (ones big enough to see easily), and over 1,000 species in total if you had a microscope and went looking. On this page, we look at Usnea, or Old Man’s Beard, here you can see Bryoria or here you can learn about Wolf Lichen. Hypogymnia Physodes, is a tree-based lichen just like Usnea. Lichens can live on trees, on the ground, or on rocks. They can take forms of dust, crusts, scales, leaves, clubs, shrubs or hairs (like Usnea). And they all look the same all year round.
Hypogymnia physodes, also known as Grey Monk’s-Hood, Hooded Bone, Heather Rags or Tube Lichen, is leafy, but to us always looks like a miniature version of the coral heads that you see when snorkelling.
Unlike most lichens, it’s tolerant of air pollution (though not so much excess nitrogen), so can be seen in cities as well as in the wilderness.
It’s name Hypogymnia is Greek for “naked underneath”, because it lacks holdfasts that attach it to things, except right at the base. Physodese is Greek for “puffed out” or “inflated looking”, which describes the lobes of the leaves. Pull apart a lobe and it’s hollow inside, by the way, trapping air and moisture to make the algae happy.
Incredibly slow growing, those little lichens you see can be hundreds of years old, and used to date forests because they often will be older than the trees (which will eventually die, while the lichens live on).
They reproduce in many ways; they generate spores on the outside that look like dust that float off in the wind. But break a bit off and it has everything it needs to grow and thrive if it lands in the right place, like another tree branch. Hypogymnia is found literally around the world.
While not true epiphytes, they don’t damage the trees they grow on, nor draw nourishment from them. They just kinda… hang out and farm their innards.
See some of the other fascinating lichens and fungi of Kananaskis Country here!