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Mosses: A plant that has no flowers and grows as small leafy stems in patches like cushions clinging to rocks, bark, or the damp ground.
Lichen: A plant-like organism made up of algae and fungus growing together. The algae produces food from the sun via photosynthesis, while the fungus absorbs moisture and provides the protective framework structure for the algae. 

Algae: Any of a large group of simple plants and plant-like organisms (like seaweed) that usually grow in water and produce chlorophyll like plants, but do not produce seeds.

Fungus: Member of the kingdom of living things (as mushrooms, molds, and rusts) that have no chlorophyll and must live in or on plants, animals, or decaying material.

Definitions From: Merriam-Webster Dictionary.


ID Characteristics
Funky Facts!
References/More Information 
What is a Lichen?
  • "Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture"-- lichenologist Trevor Goward.

  • Lichens are symbionts: they are organisms consisting of multiple species! One lichen will include at least one fungus, in addition to algae or cyanobacteria.

  • Algae and cyanobacteria are photobionts - they produce food from the sun by photosynthesis. The fungal cells alter the photobiotic cells to allow easy absorption of the carbohydrates they produce.

  • Many lichens have multiple kinds of fungi, perhaps including yeasts. This information was just discovered in 2016!

What do Lichens Look Like?
  • Most lichens fall under the 3 categories:

  • Foliose (leafy) - large with flatter surfaces, visible top and bottom parts

  • Fruticose (bushy) - may appear stem-like or stringy

  • Crustose (crusty) - flat on its substrate (the rock or whatever it’s growing on), you can only see the topside

  • Size: some lichens are tiny like dust particles. Other can grow in large cohesive pieces.

  • Color: 

  • Common lichen colors are various shades of green, brown, orange, and yellow.

  • In some cases, the outer layer of the lichen (the cortex) may be the source of the color.

  • In other cases, the cortex might be mostly transparent, which means the color you can see is from the photobiotic layer, which will be a shade of green.

  • In hot/sunny places, many lichens are light in color, which reflects sunlight, protecting the lichens from too much sun. 

  • The color of lichens may change with moisture levels.

Where are Lichens Found?
  • Lichens are found all over Earth, from hot and arid deserts, to wet rainforests; from sunny coasts, to high elevation and frigid alpine zones. 

  • Lichens can grow on rocks, trees, plants, other lichens, buildings, deserted cars, and some animals.

  • Some lichens are very vulnerable to air pollution - this is why lichens are rarely found in urban areas, and often found in great quantities in the wilderness.

What is Lichen’s Role in an Ecosystem?
  • While the algae/cyanobacteria makes food for the fungus part of lichen, many lichens are eaten by herbivores. In North America, lichen may be 50% of the diet of caribou!

  • Here in the Great Basin, dark brown lichens can be found on the ground as a “soil crust.”  The soil crust can help to hold in moisture. 

  • Many lichens can fix nitrogen - or transform nitrogen from the air into a form that plants can use - which helps plants grow!

  • Lichens on rocks can squeeze their hyphae into tiny cracks, helping to break larger rocks into smaller pieces, eventually into soil.

One of the many forms of foliose (leaf-like) lichens found in the park NPS photo
Do People Use Lichens?
  • Just like caribou, humans can eat many types of lichens, too. They can be considered an emergency food in some forests.

  • Some lichens have medicinal properties.

  • Few lichens are poisonous, but wolf lichen (a bright yellow-green fruticose lichen found in the pine forests of the Sierras [and many more places, too]) has been used by indigenous peoples to poison arrowheads for hunting.

  • People have used lichens as sources for pigments as well. Wolf lichen, mentioned above, has been used as a yellow dye. 

  • To identify lichens, scientists may use chemical reactions which produce different colors.  The same chemical reactions can be used to make more colors of dyes.

  • With their slow growth (maybe less than 1mm/year!), people can measure lichens to determine dates of events.

More Information:

YouTube Video: National Geographic "What's in a Lichen? How Scientists Got It Wrong for 150 Years"

YouTube Video: Harvard Museum of Natural History "Lichen Biology" 

Lichens of North Americaby Irwin M. Brodo, Stephen Sharnoff, and Sylvia Duran Sharnoff 

The Scientist: Not One, Not Two, But Three Fungi Present in Lichen by Kerry Grens

The New York Times: Two’s Company, Three’s a Lichen? by Steph Yin 

Perdue University: Yeast emerges as hidden third partner in lichen symbiosis by Natalie van Hoose 

Wikipedia: Lichen

Pleopsidium_chlorophanum lichen.jpg

Gold Cobblestone is known for its bright lemon color. It likes to grow on cliffs and boulders, creating a thin and tight bond. Gold Cobblestone, like other lichens, reproduce by breaking off and starting to grow wherever the broken part lands. The spores of this lichen grow out in a circular manner and are 1mm wide.

  • Gold Cobblestone is extremely hardy, it is one of the few species able to survive at high altitudes in Antarctica and can cope with high levels of UV light. 

  • Gold Cobblestone was placed in a chamber that simulated life on Mars for 34 days, and during that time it continued to photosynthesis and grow! 

  • Gold Cobblestone is a crustose lichen, meaning that it forms a crust on the object it is adhering to, and so it cannot be separated without destroying the object it adhered to.

Encyclopedia of Life: Pleopsidium chlorophanum

Encyclopædia Britannica: Lichen.

White Rim Lichen (Lecanora rupicola)


Photo by Jason Hollinger


White Rim Lichen form mosaic-like patches that reach around 10 centimeters in diameter. They are usually cracked and uneven in appearance with a whitish grey coloration and may contain black spots within the lichen.

  • Another lichen species Arthonia varians, lives within and takes nutrients from the white rim lichen

  • Due to being a lichen, this species has an algae partner that it is completely codependent on. This algae is named Trebouxia

  • Has a preference for living on granite!


iNaturalist: White Rim Lichen

Lichens marins: Lecanora rupicola

Google Books: Lichens of North America

Gold Cobblestone

(Pleopsidium chlorophanum):

  • Mosses are a type of bryophyte. Bryophytes are ancient plants, distinct for not having a vascular system (roots & veins to distribute water and nutrients) while also living on land.

  • Without depending on roots, bryophytes can grow on tough soil, on tree bark, and even on rocks.

  • They can hold onto their substrate (the thing they’re growing on) with extensions called rhizoids (analogous to rhizines on lichens).

  • Mosses still have stems and leaves, and these leaves may be just one cell thick.

  • Instead of having seeds like most land plants, mosses reproduce with spores.

  • But just like other plants, mosses are green and make their own food by photosynthesis.

  • Many organisms that are not bryophytes have “moss” in their common names (e.g., reindeer moss, a lichen; club moss, a vascular plant). This can be confusing, but one can learn to identify a moss by its structure! 

  • While more common in wet environments, there are more than 300 species of bryophytes in Nevada, and at least 88 species in Washoe County alone!

What is Moss?
Ecological Significance
  • Bryophytes are often the first species to grow on newly opened ground.

  • They can hold moisture in the soil, and provide nutrients to make barren soil available to vascular plants. They even contribute to the transformation of rock into soil.

  • Mosses prevent erosion of soil.

  • Few animals will eat moss - it doesn’t provide much nutrition.

  • Birds may use moss for their nests.

What the Fungus?!
  • Fungus, they aren’t plants or animals, but in a kingdom all their own! We as humans are more closely related to fungi than any other kingdom.

  • Fungi inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide just like humans.

  • Fungi were the first organism to come to land 1.3 billion years ago!

  • Fungi, in the form of a mycelium matt, is said to be the largest organism on earth!

  • Fungi produce enzymes that can break down rocks, dead organic matter, and living tissues that they use for food.

  • Fungi can be both destructive and life sustaining. From beer production, to fermented foods like sauerkraut, life-saving medicine, and the many wonderfully delicious mushrooms we eat, fungi deserve a place of honor.

  • Many fungi have been used in mycoremediation (using fungi to remove toxic substances from the soil or water).

  • Fungi are also termed “nature’s internet” by Paul Stamets in his book “Mycelium Running.” He describes the ability of fungi to connect plant roots and transfer nutrients between plants!

  • In the book Botany in a Day, Thomas Elip states that “90 percent of all plants associate with fungus in the soil, and 80 percent could not survive without their fungal partners.” We have a lot to thank fungus for! 

More Information:

YouTube Video: “Fungi: Death Becomes Them” by CrashCourse Biology #39
“Using Fungi to Fix Bridges” Binghampton University 
Joe Rogan's Mind Is Blown By Biologist Explaining Fungal Intelligence 


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