Originally published May 2009
Hello everyone! There is a glorious painting by Frank Cadogan Cowper (described as the last of the Pre-raphaelites) called The Four Queens find Lancelot Sleeping. And very comfortable he looks too sprawled out under the trees in full armour! What! I hear you cry en masse, with justifiable outrage. How can a chap encased in metal be slumbering peacefully ‘tween the roots of several large trees in broad daylight, given that I can’t sleep beyond four in the morning due to that Blackbird exercising its syrinx (I do hope you have been keeping up!) outside of my window every morning?
Well, the answer is obvious! The Flower of Chivalry (pre Guinevere!) has clearly found himself a comfortable bed of the oldest terrestrial plants on the planet to dream on. I am of course talking about moss, that beautifully formed mat of springy plants covering tree, stone and soil throughout our little reserve. Mosses belong to that Division of plants called Bryophyta and have the distinction of being the most primitive plants on land; possibly because they were the first. However, as they have been around for four hundred million years, they could also be classed as some of the most successful plants on Earth.
Now, we are all used to seeing Ray Mears brewing up after squeezing gallons of water from clumps of Sphagnum moss, and indeed all moss needs water to reproduce. Therefore it is amazing that some rather tricksy species survive in arid areas by drying out completely to the point of desiccation. They lie dormant for long periods looking like dried scrapings on a wall or rock and come back to life within a few hours of re-hydration. Clearly this is the botanical equivalent of ‘no sense, no feeling’ as the more complex plants just would not survive such harsh treatment.
You have to get down low to study these plants, but believe me they are worth it! Exquisitely formed individual little plants make up the huge cushions of green. If you look carefully you will see little swan neck shaped stems sticking up. These are the sporophytes, specialist cells from which, just like our ‘fabulous ferns’, spores are propelled into the air. In true botanical tradition the identification of mosses down to species level is not for the faint hearted! With the aid of my trusty guide I have been able to recognise Polytrichum spp., Plagiomnium spp., and Mnium hornum, though there are many more to be seen around the pond and tree roots in Quarry Wood. To most of us mere mortals it’s much more satisfying just to enjoy the sight and feel of these luxuriant green beds fit for any knight!
When my children were younger I told them that one of my jobs was to paint woodland trees orange. Of course, they believed me though, strangely, never actually asked me why I did it! What I was actually showing them was one of several types of lichen, a plant commonly mistaken for moss. Lichens are actually not even related to mosses but are in fact a cunning blend of a fungus and an alga.
The process by which the two organisms combine to produce lichen is complex and one that is not fully understood yet. So that lets me off the hook in terms of explaining the botanical side of these beautiful plants! Just look carefully and you will spot lovely little lace like veils hanging off the oak trees and thin layers of little crumpled looking leaves growing on branches and up on the rock face. Most species of lichen are sensitive to air pollution, particularly to levels of the dreaded sulphur dioxide and are thus good biological indicators of air quality.
Lichen species have been used by people in a variety of ways for thousands of years, for example, wool dyeing in this country and as a rather dodgy hallucigen by the Laplanders. I know the more astute of you will be wondering about the second part of this month’s enigmatic title. So here goes, the ancient egyptians came up with one of the more obscure uses of dried lichen. The display box of Ramses IV’s mummy proudly tells us that when he died in 1145 BC the eyes of the king were replaced with onions and his abdomen stuffed with lichen!
However, before you market gardeners even think of indulging in a little home embalming or taxidermy, please remember lichen is extremely slow growing and anyway, it looks much better on the trees!
As usual, the ‘put me right’ line is email@example.com
Images: Abbie Stanton at Quarry Wood for Powdermill Trust