You see them as plant-like growths on trees, rocks, monuments, walls, roofs, soil, and sand. Lichens are not single plants, but a symbiotic relationship between two or more different species. Lichens are a symbiosis of algae or cyanobacteria growing on the fibers of fungi.
The fungi benefit by getting nutrition from the algae or cyanobacteria which produce energy by photosynthesis using sunlight. The algae or cyanobacteria benefit from the fibrous structure of the fungus which gives it a stable structure and captures moisture and nutrients from the air needed for photosynthesis. This mutually beneficial relationship is what we call symbiosis.
Lichens are very different from either of their component life-forms, and they can survive together in areas where neither could survive alone. You can find lichens in the Arctic tundra, hot and dry deserts, and high above the treeline on mountains. Even though they often grow on trees, they are not parasites since they take no nutrition from the trees and they have no roots. They are almost complete ecosystems in themselves living off the moisture and dust particles in the air.
In desert areas, lichens help to stabilize the sand making it possible for plants to grow. When they grow on rocks, they help to break down the minerals in the rocks into mineral-rich soils for plants. Lichens are called “pioneer species” since they are the first to grow on bare rocks and in areas that have been destroyed by fire.
The first living thing mentioned in the biblical story of creation in Genesis 1:11 is “deshe” in Hebrew translated as “grass” in the English King James Version. The Hebrew word more accurately means “tender grass, or sprout” and could better be translated as “lichens” or “moss.” Some so-called moss is actually a lichen, such as “reindeer moss” which is a lichen in the Arctic tundra eaten by reindeer (caribou). Other lichens provide food for some insects and butterfly larvae. Lichens are important to life on our planet, and both science and the Bible agree that they were among Earth’s earliest plant-like growth. They are another of God’s dandy designs for life.
© Roland Earnst