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British Soldier Lichen
Cladonia cristatella

My eyes are constantly scanning my environment looking for patterns, and breaks from patterns, which help me spot and identify new plants and other things I haven’t spotted before. I think part of this way of seeing is what helps me in my profession as a graphic designer. Scanning the ground on a winter walk around the perimeter of my ‘micro farm’ I was immediately surprised by bright red spots on the very brown leafy and occasionally green mossy ground.

What I had come across I suspected was a lichen (although I wasn’t sure, not being that familiar with them, and primarily finding lichen on trees or rocks). From some research, I found that the red caps are the reproductive structure of the lichen, called an “apothecia.”

“Like other lichens, British soldiers can – in theory, anyway – reproduce both sexually and asexually, with the latter occurring when a piece of the lichen breaks off and reattaches to a substrate elsewhere. The apothecia contain spores that can be released. These carry fungal DNA, but no algae, so a spore would have to land right next to an algal cell to reproduce this way.

“The chances of this happening are very slim,” Roehl writes on his website. “However, C. cristatella is almost always found with an apothecium atop every one of its branches. This indicates that the fungus is devoting a surprising amount of energy to sexual reproduction. If this process was useless, evolution would have gotten rid of it a long time ago.” Quoting from this site.

Family: Cladoniaceae 
Habitat: British Soldier is usually found on mossy logs, tree bases, and stumps. Native to North America, this species is widespread in Virginia, common in moist exposed roadside soil and rotting wood, especially in sunny openings. 
Identifiers: Bright red tops on sage green lichen 

Description: From the Virginia Native Plant Society

A bright spot in the woods and meadows in winter is this little lichen with the red caps, named for the red uniforms of the British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. The surrounding material is gray-green, a color characteristic of lichens, reflecting their dual lifestyle. A green alga Trebouxia erici supplies nourishment by its photosynthesis while the fungus, Cladonia cristatella furnishes necessary water and nutrients.

All text and photos copyright © 2022 Middle Way Nature Reserve, unless noted.
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