If winter’s duller palette leaves you yearning for color and flowers have yet to emerge, look more closely on an early spring walk, run or hike.
Lichen, with its array of electric orange, green and yellow, can be everywhere. It polka-dots jagged rocks along the North Shore and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It materializes on tree bark and laces its way across cemetery headstones.
“Once a person opens their eyes, they are everywhere,” said Joe Walewski, author of “Lichens of the North Woods.”
For anyone yearning for spring color, it’s also something to look for when flowers have yet to bloom. Need more? Watch for the elegant unfurling of ferns and fern-like allies. Allies include horsetail rushes and swaths of club moss that look like tiny pine forests. While often overlooked, lichen, ferns and allies all add color and texture to Minnesota’s landscape and their own unique contributions as micro wonders of the natural world.
Ranging from hairy strands on tree branches to leathery leaflike growths on trunks, a lichen is an organism that is often mistaken for a fungus or moss. In actuality, lichen forms with a symbiotic marriage of fungus and algae. Fungus absorbs water, provides structure and protects. Algae and sometimes bacteria create a food source for the lichen, which attaches to trees, rocks and ground but takes no nutrients from them.
“Lichen gets everything from the air,” said Walewski, a naturalist at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland. It relies on the algae to photosynthesize food and generally acts as nature’s air filters. They collect pollutants and thrive the most in areas where the air is clean, such as the BWCA or Isle Royale, which has hundreds of species.
Lichen can be tenacious, too. In order to remove it from prairie outcroppings of quartzite at the Jeffers Petroglyphs site in southwestern Minnesota, staff had to essentially smother it with rubber roofing materials, said Charles Broste, a facilities maintenance technician, archaeologist and conservator at Jeffers Petroglyphs. University of Minnesota biologists identified 17 kinds of lichen covering the rock considered sacred by American Indians for the stories carved there from about 11,000 years ago until the early 1700s.
A three-year lichen-removal effort that finished in 2012 restored 3,000 additional carvings — more than doubling what was already revealed and cataloged.
Broste figured airborne fertilizer from farms made the project more challenging. “It’s like our lichen was on Miracle-Gro,” he said.
On the North Shore, lichen’s ability to catch airborne particles can collect bits of dirt and allow plants such as nodding purple harebells to grow in the unlikely crevasses of rock.
It was while rock climbing that Walewski became interested in lichen, which would literally be in his face as he made his way up cliffs and studied the tiny communities. If he had to pick a favorite, it would be the aptly named elegant sunburst lichen that spreads along the North Shore and northern Minnesota.
“It’s just so brilliant and happy — even in the winter,” Walewski said.
Feast on vibrant greens
While lichen can often be spotted year-round, a dose of spring warmth coaxes almost-translucent greens of ferns and spore-producing fern allies to emerge through fall’s litter of leaves.
“The mosses are almost always the first thing to green up,” said Molly Tranel-Nelson, a state resource management specialist for 18 southern Minnesota state parks. “Then you’ll start seeing the fiddleheads.”
Fiddlehead ferns — which likely inspired the intricate scroll on fiddles and other string instruments — unfurl elegantly from tightly coiled spirals. Foragers covet ostrich fern fiddleheads, in particular, to sauté and eat like a cross between broccoli and asparagus.
Today’s ferns and fern allies descend from the Carboniferous Period more than 300 million years ago when Earth was a vast swamp, said Walewski, who also wrote “Ferns of the North Woods.” Deep layers of spores settled into the ancient sea and transformed into the coal that fueled the country.
There are more than 80 species of ferns and allies in the state. They thrive in moist areas or shady sides of ravines and can be the perfect greens to look for on spring hikes in search of rushing rivers and roaring waterfalls.
But appreciating ferns, mosses and lichen, of course, doesn’t require a major hike. Simply examining a mature tree can yield dozens of lichen varieties and possibly mosses and ferns, too near the base.
“You don’t have to go far,” Walewski said. “Sometimes it’s about stopping and noticing.”
Lisa Meyers McClintick is St. Cloud-based freelance writer. Reach her at 10000likes.com.