Country: The litmus plant

Richard D North is intrigued by the discreet charm and ecological appeal of lichens

It is best not to say it to Frank Dobson, one-time crack pistol shot (British team, Rome Olympics, 1960) and erstwhile part-time skipper of a Thames River police launch, but lichens are really quite boring in a way.

He is one of the leading lights in the 600-member British Lichen Society, and they are a truly dedicated bunch. The objects of their interest are what's called lower, or prim-itive, biota. Telling the species apart is as difficult as spotting which sphagnum moss is which. They are, it may be said, more varied than the grasses, the ferns, or even the fungi (or mushrooms). All the same, they are, to misquote Hamlet, neat but not quite gaudy enough to be really popular.

Plantlife, the group that aims to do for botany what the RSPB does for birds, is rather plaintive in its announcement of the launch of the Red Data Book for lichens, which takes place next Wednesday at the Natural History Museum in London. "Few people are aware of lichens, yet they grow all around us," it murmurs. Red Data Books flag up conservation anxieties surrounding different bits of our wildlife. This latest one will have first to make people interested at all.

But it is typical of the discreet charm of the lichens (all 1,500-odd species of them in Britain) that they do - so to speak - grow on you. They are complicated things. In a sense, they are almost as much an event as a thing. They are, explains Mr Dobson, an association of an alga and a fungus. "Under some definitions seaweeds are lichens, really," he says. They are mostly ignored by these specialists. "The field of study," writes Mr Dobson in his definitive Lichens: An Illustrated Guide to the British and Irish Species, "is circumscribed by tradition rather than by science."

Few people are first drawn to botany by a purely scientific curiosity. With lichens, one gets the feeling that those who love them come to the study of these splashes of usually subdued colour on a rock or tree after years of preoccupation with the more obviously glamorous plants. But in a dark and dank wood, the lichens that love old bark are often almost luminous in the delight they bring to the eye. On coastal clifftops, their hues of russet or eau de nil or grey are a subtle relief.

The obstinacy of lichens is very appealing: they are the most numerous species in Antarctica, they manage on the most blasted rock face, and the most heavily drenched stream-side. They can also be charmingly fussy: according to Peter Lambley, English Nature's specialist, some of them are happiest in woodland with 400 years under its girths. Nick Stewart, who researched the Red Data Book, says that one species is to be found in only four sites in Britain, and on a total of as few as 50 trees.

Yet the picture is far from gloomy. Lichens are good indicators of air quality. The pollution in our cities is now so much alleviated that some species are reappearing after many years' absence. One such has popped up in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Some others, it is true, are suffering a little, especially in the countryside, probably because traffic is now spreading some nitrous oxides and thus low-level ozone far and wide. Contradictorily, says Peter Lambley, some species manage quite well beside busy roads. "Others seem not to like the agro-chemicals, and suffer on trees next to fields," he adds.

Some lichen species that positively thrived in the dirty years are now finding life difficult. One liked mineral slag heaps; its extinction there can perhaps be mourned - but its revival not accommodated. Several lichens are part of what is now called a "suite" of species which add up to making a case for preserving this or that woodland or heathland.

The lichen, with its toughness, attractiveness, sensitivity and becoming modesty, is not likely to set many hearts on fire next week. The complexity of its conservation position - neither dire nor unthreatened - will make few headlines. But the more we learn about its habits and tastes, and track them, the better we can understand some of the minutiae of habitat and pollution. Lichens are not merely lovely, they are a sort ofliving litmus paper monitoring our stewardship.

Plantlife: 0171-938 9111

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'