Jarreg’s Journal: Cladonia cristatella

Spring is finally here.

Every year, for as long as I can remember, spring means flora, blooming, sprouting, pollinating, stalking for miles in the woods without deadlines, mimicking the steps I took as a child. In the last several years I have failed to act on this imperative, this instinct that guided so many of my younger years. Life happens. Responsibilities, work, children, schedules, all these things conspire to keep me inside or in transit from point A to points B-Z. I’ve tried to keep souvenirs of my former self. I keep camping gear at the ready. I started an insect collection with my kids. On those occasions that I can get the kids out in the wild I teach them everything I can. My five-year old daughter can identify half a dozen edible plants and wastes no time when she finds them. Nibbling on wild plants is the only way to get my son to voluntarily eat vegetables most of the time. Part of me would love for my children to have the kind of education I had. I have to live in the real world instead. I will give them as much as I can.

I hope to use this journal as motivation to get back out there, to get them out there. It won’t be highly organized. It won’t be scheduled or pre-planned. That isn’t how this kind of discovery works. Some of the things I include will be new to me. Some will be as familiar as my own back yard. I’ll start with a pretty little lichen.

For those of you that don’t know, lichens are composite organisms, each one made up of a fungus and a photosynthetic organism such as a green algae. The way the two symbiotes interact is fascinating and I recommend to anyone interested, by all means research the subject further. You won’t be disappointed. The lichen I’d like to show you is known as Cladonia cristatella. This is the name of the fungus portion of the lichen as well. Usually lichen take their names from the fungus but not always. The alga part of this duo is known as Trebouxia erici. Commonly referred to as British Soldier lichen, owing to their bright red, hat-like apothecia, C. cristatella is a vibrant and welcome sight when hiking. Look for it in moist places, especially on or near decomposing wood.

I’ve seen this species dozens of times over the years. It always makes me stop and admire.


If you aren’t one to pay close attention though, you’ll miss it, even with its tufts of scarlet.

Now that I’ve shown you a common species in my neck of the woods, let me show you something else. While common in many areas, the next lichen I will show you is not so often seen where I live. I am fortunate enough to live on the Cumberland plateau. There are a number of species here that might seem out-of-place on a typical range map if you pay attention. There are no red flags on this one to draw your attention. You have to be alert.



That one is Cladonia cervicornis ssp. verticillata in case you’re curious, aka the ladder or saucer lichen, a beautiful and sometimes ghostly little creature and like all lichens a truly marvelous jewel of evolution.