Sandy’s Garden ... Liking Lichens

Some 40 years have passed since my interest in railway history and operations encouraged me to contemplate building a model of Glasgow Queen Street station.

Well the track, platforms and …optimistically … the signalling.

Sandy Simpson

Sandy Simpson

Queen Street’s cramped site and short platforms, in conjunction with the proximity of a tunnel would allow me to fit the essentials into a bedroom, by condensing the distance from the platform ends to the tunnel mouth and by introducing a sharp 90° curve immediately after the tunnel mouth to turn the trains into what enthusiasts call a ‘fiddle yard’ – a bank of sidings to stable the trains. Trains would simply enter and leave the station according to the timetable and in compliance with the signalling; a single 1979-style push-pull set would cover all the real-life Edinburgh-Glasgow diagrams, with at most two models of each of the few then-current locomotives and coach sets and diesel multiple units covering all the relevant workings. The head office of the Scottish Region of British Railways very kindly supplied me with track and signalling plans; and I actually did make a start to this over-ambitious project, although it wasn’t long before the harsh voice of reality dictated that it was impractical to even think of completing the task.

And what this has to do with my garden is this. I was a frequent customer of the very few model railway shops then open in central Scotland; on such visits I saw much of the wide range of scenic materials available to railway modellers; and one was dyed, dried lichen – or, perhaps, I should say dyed, dried lichens, for different species were used to represent different plant species in miniature. But it’s only very recently that I had a notion to find out a little about the lichens which thrive in my garden.

Let’s start with their name; does one call them ‘litchens’ or ‘likens’? I prefer ‘likens’, but there seems to be no hard-and-fast rule in British English. As to the derivation and meaning of the word lichen, Charles Plitt, the author of a scientific paper published in 1916 wrote that … according to William Lauder Lindsay’s ‘History of British Lichens’ … it is derived from a word meaning ‘a wart’, although P.M.E. Wertheim-van Dillen is quoted as saying that the word is derived from the Latin word ‘lingo’ … ‘to lick up’ … because the plant absorbs water so easily. Whatever, lichens grow on bark, rocks, or walls; in woodlands, deserts, or tundra; and come in many guises, resembling plants or fungi. It is more than 150 years since the Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener suggested that lichens are composite organisms composed of fungi living together with microscopic algae. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has this to say: “In the simplest case, a fungus surrounds a colony of algae. The algal cells provide food for the fungus via photosynthesis, while the fungal partner protects the algae from drying out and sun damage.” That’s a simple explanation?!

So how did lichens … and there are more than 1500 species of lichen in Scotland … find their way onto my garden wall and the bark of some of my trees? I turned to the U.S. Forest Service for the answer: “Unlike plants that can produce seeds, lichens do not have a straightforward way to grow more lichen. Instead, they have structures specifically developed for the spread of fragments of their thalli; and fragments of lichen can grow into full-size thalli.” I found out that a thallus is: ‘a plant-like vegetative body that lacks differentiation into distinct parts such as stems leaves and roots.” Essentially, miniscule bits of lichens grow into new plants, finding the nutrients they need in the air – including dust – and in water, being happiest where there is regular rain. So they came of their own accord, travelling on the wind; they liked some features of my garden; and I’m quite content to share my garden with them!