Mosses and lichens

Loving the Lichens

The summer of 2022 saw a foot of rain in July and August in the Anchorage area, which may have put a damper on some outdoor activities. But I like to say that there’s no bad weather, only bad gear, so it’s worthwhile to invest in a decent jacket, a good hat, and boots. Or at least an umbrella so you can stroll through the woods, gardens or parks undaunted by the weather. The smell of the rain and the misty look of the trees in the landscape magnify your experience.

A pair of unknown mosses on granite.
Mosses are still known as Bryophytes. Look it up!

If you’re walking in a garden, there’s usually a lot of color, i.e., flowers, leaves, etc. to distract from the other interesting life forms.  I’m talking about mushrooms and other fungi, mosses and lichens. With all the moisture locally last year, the lichens and mosses perked up in the forest and made themselves known with nearly fluorescent green color on the ground and trees. There was an abundance of the bright orange Amanita muscaria mushrooms, as well as a dozen other ’shrooms. Remember, mushrooms are not plants because they don’t make their food. The mushrooms we see are the fruiting bodies of the underground fungi.

Amanita muscaria

Exciting Species to Observe

For this article I’m grouping mosses, lichens and fungi together as the interesting species that may escape your notice in the woods. But each belongs in its own group, and each deserves some investigation. In the Laidback Gardener spirit, we are not going too deep down the botanical rabbit hole of Latin names and groupings, which get changed occasionally anyway, often due to genetic testing.

For example, Liverworts used to be grouped with the bryophytes (mosses). Not anymore, but don’t worry about it. We just want to have fun with these cool species! I describe liverworts as a lily pad, with tea cups and palm trees. You may find them in the garden or growing on top of your moist, peaty potting soil. They make an interesting mini garden in a moss dish. Add a toy dinosaur for effect.

Liverwort. Photo:
Liverwort “palm trees”. Photo: Pinterest.


Lichens are formed from a symbiosis of certain fungi and (usually) green algae. They can be found in many different habitats and even in Antarctica! The health of lichens is studied as an indicator of air quality.

I am not an expert , but have become a fan. Alaska has over 500 species of lichens! You should know there are 3 main types of lichens:

  • Crustose lichens-these form a thin crust on the surface they grow on.
  • Foliose lichens—these form leaf-like lobes.
  • Fruticose lichens-these have a shrubby growth habit.

Get out and look closely at the trees and on rocks and stumps.

Lobaria pulmonaria, foliose lichen. Photo: Preston Villumsen.
Cladonia species. Fruticose lichen. Photo: Preston Villumsen.
Usnea lichen, AKA Old Man’s Beard. Fruicose lichenPhoto: Pinterest.
Myriolecis. Crustose lichen. Photo: Preston Villumsen.
Pin stubble lichen a caliciod type. Photo: Preston Villumsen.
Birch stump with various fungi. Photo: Patrick Ryan.

Fake Moss

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,  many small plants bearing the name moss are not in fact mosses. The “moss” found on the north side of trees is often the green alga PleurococcusIrish moss (Chondrus crispus) is a red algaBeard moss (Usnea species), Iceland moss (Cetraria islandica), oak moss (Evernia prunastri), and reindeer moss (Cladonia species) are lichensSpanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is an air plant of the pineapple family (Bromeliaceae). Club mosses are fern allies in the family Lycopodiaceae.

The Alaska Botanical Garden hosted groups from the Botany 22 Conference, whose theme was “Plants at the Extreme” and I learned a lot from our tours with these scientists. We even had one of the scientists find a lichen that was possibly out of its range and that has generated more interest in identifying and possibly adding some signage helping other visitors to learn a bit about these alien-looking plants.

Mystery Lichen at the Alaska Botanical Garden. Photo: Jesse Miller, UC Davis.

Sortez dans les bois

Remember to get outdoors and into the woods. Keep your eyes and ears open. Take lots of pictures. Just enjoy the diversity of life in the wild and don’t worry about the proper names. Make up your own names for things! If you have the notion to dig a little deeper into the world of lichens, mosses and fungi, go ahead! Lots of info online.

For more information, go to The US Forest Service site: AK_lichens.pdf ( This site also has fliers on Alaska Mushrooms and ferns.

A local resource that I’ve found handy is Dr. Gary Laursen’s book, Alaska’s Mushrooms: A Wide-Ranging Guide.

The lichen bible is Lichens of North America by Irwin M. BrodoSylvia Duran SharnoffStephen Sharnoff. I was fortunate to spend time at the Alaska Botanical Garden with Dr. Brodo.

On the moss side of things, you can’t beat Annie Martin’s book The Magical World of Moss Gardening. ( Contact Mossin’ Annie to purchase an autographed copy.

Observation de lichens en Alaska
Irwin Brodo at the Alaska Botanical Garden glacial erratic.
One more alien! Red Jelly Fungus. Photo: Sophie Frost.

Patrick Ryan is an Alaska Master Gardener and the Education Specialist for the Alaska Botanical Garden. A retired elementary school teacher, Patrick is a member of the Anchorage Community Forest Council and sits on the board for Alaska Agriculture in the Classroom.

2 comments on “Loving the Lichens

  1. Lois J. de Vries

    Patrick, what a great article. I like lichens and we have a lot of them here in NWNJ, but I’m going to start looking more closely to see what else we might have.

  2. Kathy Jentz

    I love mosses – what a wonderful world to explore.

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