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After a dry start to February, this week’s storms have brought heavy rain and strong winds to Curbstone Valley.  After the winds died down between storm cells we noticed the garden paths were strewn with tufts and clumps of various lichens that had blown from the branches above.  This particular piece of lovely lacy lichen caught our eye.

 

Ramalina menziesii

This is Ramalina menziesii, commonly known as Lace Lichen, or California Spanish Moss.  It hangs in gray-green lacy beards from Oaks and Firs on the property, in long branching strands, and can reach up to two meters in length.

 

Ramalina menziesii hanging from a fir tree above the vegetable garden

The intricate lacy patterns of this lichen species are difficult to appreciate from a distance, but become readily apparent when viewed up close.

Ramalina menziesii

Lichens are typically composed of two or more organisms, a fungus, an algae, and/or cyanobacterium.  Ramalina menziesii is an example of a controlled parasitic relationship between a fungus and an algae, not a moss as its common name implies.

California Spanish Moss, isn't a moss at all, it's comprised of a fungus and algae

The fungal component of this epiphytic lichen, called the mycobiont, produces the general net-like structure, the thallus, and contains and protects the photosynthetic algal component, called the photobiont.

Ramalina menziesii

The algal component, capable of photosynthesis, provides nutrients and energy for both itself, and the fungus.

 

Up close, the shaggy lichen strands reveal their true beauty

To add to the lexicon of lichens, there are distinct structural types of lichen: foliose, crustose, fruticose, squamulose, and leprose.

 

Lichens have many forms, including this foliose or leaf-like lichen

Ramalina menziesii is just one of numerous lichen species growing on this oak branch

For more regarding the different structural types of lichen, see a previous post by Town Mouse and Country Mouse here.

Ramalina menziesii is classified structurally as a fruticose lichen, which means the thallus has no distinct top or bottom.

 

Ramalina menziesii can grow in dense clusters on host trees

 

The pendulous strands can exceed 6 feet in length

Fruticose lichens may be upright, shrubby, or consist of pendulous strands, like this Ramalina species.

Ramalina menziesii primarily grows on sunny slopes that face the coast, and is usually found on oaks, conifers, shrubs, and broad-leaf trees.

 

Ramalina menziesii on Douglas fir

In some areas of our woodland this species is particularly abundant.  Ramalina menziesii can reproduce both asexually and sexually. This delicate lichen is prone to breaking easily, and fragments that break free can produce a new organism asexually.

 

Lace lichen is fragile, and the delicate strands break easily

Sexual reproduction involves the release of fungal spores, that can recombine with a new photobiont to yield a new Ramalina organism.

 

Ramalina menziesii

Lichens need sunlight, water and nutrients to grow.  During harsh and dry summer conditions R. menziesii survives for extended periods of time in a dormant state, resuming growth once the rains return.  As lichens obtain most of their nutrients from the air, and rainfall, they are especially sensitive to pollutants, and can serve as indicators of regional air quality.

 

Ramalina menziesii is sensitive to airborne pollutants

During the dry ‘dormant’ season, pollutants accumulate on the thallus.  When it rains, the accumulated pollutants are dissolved, and absorbed.  As a result, in areas with high air-pollution, where pollutant accumulation is excessive in the dry season, lichens such as Ramalina can no longer survive. [1]

 

The large surface area of the nets facilitates trapping of water and nutrients

In southern California this lichen species was once found along the coastal plains and the foothills of the San Jacinto mountains, but now Ramalina menziesii is primarily found at elevation, above the smog layer.

 

Ramalina menziesii no longer grows in parts of coastal California where air quality is poor

We’re fortunate to reside in a less densely populated area, and the coastal breezes help to keep our air cleaner.  As such Ramalina menziesii, at least for now, is fairly abundant on the property, although perhaps not as common as it once was.

Lichens have long been utilized by animals and humans.  Native peoples, including the Pomo, are known to have woven fiber from Ramalina menziesii. [2]  Deer and rabbits will browse on Ramalina when they can reach it, some livestock animals relish it [3], and birds will occasionally weave the strands into their nests.

A fragment of Ramalina menziesii blown to the ground in our recent storms

In recent years The California Lichen Society has attempted to convince the California State Legislature to declare Ramalina menziesii as the State lichen.  Unfortunately, thus far they have been unsuccessful, but that doesn’t stop us from appreciating this beautiful species here at Curbstone Valley.

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[1] Bell, JNB, and Treshow, Michael. 2002. Air Pollution and Plant Life.
[2] Daniel E. Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotanical Database
[3] Bulletin of the California Lichen Society 9(1), 2002