Sunday, February 17, 2008

Lichens, Mosses, and Fungi, Oh My!

No room for a big garden with big plants? Perhaps you should get small. In the world of tiny plants, it’s a jungle out there.

“Now I know who the real plant geeks are,” quipped botanist and self-confessed lichen lover, Tim Tunison. We diehards had flocked to the Niaulani campus of the Volcano Art Center for an all-day nerd-fest, er, workshop on lichens, mosses, and fungi. Eager to explore that little-known frontier usually ignored by what might be considered the saner population, we had all prepared ourselves with mud gear and warm sweaters to stare and squint at tree trunks and lava rocks on the slopes of Mauna Loa. And indeed we got to know a little, and a lot more about little, thanks to the generous wit and wisdom of Tim Tunison.

Tim started out by giving us a rundown of terminology (Do you know your liverworts from your hornworts and mosses? Is that lichen crustose, fruticose, foliose or squamulose?) He enlightened us with a plethora of fascinating facts, such as most mosses and lichens in Hawai'i are indigenous natives found in a wide range of locations, and there are comparatively few fungi here.

Then we got down to the myths, legends, FAQs and other minutiae, such as:

"Are fungi plants or animals?"
Neither. Fungi rule! When classifying living organisms, they are placed in the Kingdom Fungi.

"Is a lichen a plant or animal?"
It’s both, but mostly it’s fungi living with algae. The algae usually can live without the fungi, but the fungi can’t live without the algae. (Had any roommates like this?)

"Help! I see lichens all over my tree, and especially on the branches that are dying. Lichens are killing my poor trees!"
Stop! Put away that fungicide. When was the last time you saw a healthy, thriving rainforest without any lichens and mosses? Your tree was probably already not doing well, maybe due to old age, poor nutrition, or a pathogen. Most likely the branches lost its leaves and thus allowed the lichens to grow. You can prune off the dead branches and/or pull off the lichens by hand to increase exposure to light and see if that alone restores the vigor of your tree. Some gardeners find that fertilizing the tree also helps.

After this introduction, we all sat in a big circle while Tim passed out samples of the Lilliputian delights he had gathered for our perusal. Armed with magnifying lenses, we could see in clear detail the amazing forms and textures we’ve been missing out on. We oohed and ahhed over the delicate beauty of these miniature gardens, their parts ruffled, fluffy, powdery, rubbery, and woody, in colors ranging from pale green to emerald, bright gold and chocolate brown.

Next we set off into the Volcano forests to search for these wonders in their natural environments, the places Tim called the “leftover habitats.” Our explorations came across many specimens of lichens, mosses, liverworts, hornworts, and filmy ferns, and gave us a glimpse of some other native species in the wild. Here's a peek at what we saw.

a liverwort...

a very LARGE filmy fern...

“mintless” mint…

loulu palm (Pritchardia becchariana)…

native fern, relative of bird's nest (Asplenium sp.)…

olomea (Perrottetia sandwicensis)

This protected forest is kept clear of invasive species such as ginger, banana poka and Himalayan raspberry, and feral pigs. It was an incredibly enriching feeling to see so many healthy native plants repopulating the land here. Thanks to excellent environmental education programs promoting stewardship such as the ones offered by the Volcano Art Center, the general public has the opportunity to learn more and share their interests regarding the unique native plant species of Hawai'i, from the giant koa tree to the microscopic red algae that covers its bark with a rusty coat. Volcano Art Center classes and workshops are held throughout the year for residents and visitors to the island of Hawai'i.

Gardening tip: If you want to grow algae and mosses on terra cotta or a concrete surface, such as a planter or garden art, it’s easier if you live in a wet, humid environment but you can try to stimulate the process. Crumble a bit of moss into some buttermilk or yogurt, and then brush the mixture on the surface you want the moss to grow on. Keep the object in a moist, shady spot for several weeks or months, and voila! – you’ve created a low-maintenance, natural touch to your landscaping.

No comments: