Flora in the Alps – Why are lichen so special?

The Alps have such dazzling panorama’s with quaint mountain villages, snow-capped mountain peaks and crystal-clear lakes reflecting the stunning scenery, that it’s quite easy to forget all about the small natural wonders at your feet. Lichen are without a doubt one of nature’s little marvels that are very easy to miss. When you’re paying attention while hiking in our mountains, you’ll notice many different species. But why are lichen so special?

Working together

Lichen aren’t like anything else in the plant kingdom. Lichen are an extraordinary collaboration between a fungus and an alga (and sometimes cyanobacteria). In this symbiotic relationship, both parties are doing extremely well. The alga is the one possessing green chlorophyll and takes care of the photosynthesis. It nourishes the fungus with the nutrients produced by the photosynthesis. In return, the fungus retains water to keep the alga moist. In addition, it protects the alga from sunlight and produces acids that the alga uses for photosynthesis.

Strong in extreme conditions

Fungus and alga form such an incredibly strong team that lichens can extract their necessary nutrients from rain, fog or even just from dust particles in the air. Lichens can also dry out for many years and then ‘wake up’ again when they come into contact with water. That is why lichens can flourish in the most extreme conditions, such as on bare rocks high up in the alpine. The alpine is an extreme environment for flora. The habitat is characterised by low-nutrient soils, no shade to shelter from ultraviolet radiation, little protection against drying winds, lack of water and extreme hot and cold temperatures.

Slow growing lichen on bare rock at the Col the Montets. Photo by Simone Van Velzen

No competition

Most plants can’t live in such extreme conditions and that is beneficial for a lichen, because they are extremely slow growing and are therefore easily overgrown by faster moving species. The map lichen (Rhizocarpon geographicum) for example is a commonly observed species in the Alps growing on bare rocks, but it only grows a fraction of a millimeter per year. The absence of any competition makes a bare rock a prime location for this slow growing lichen.

Where to find lichen

However, most species do not grow on bare rocks in the high mountain areas, but on trees, branches and leaves, or simply on the ground. You can find lichens everywhere on our planet: in Antarctica, in the tropics, on tundra’s and in boreal forests (coniferous forests at a high latitude, such as in Canada, Scandinavia and Russia). And of course you can find them in the Alps, at your feet while absorbing the dazzling views!

Simone van Velzen

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