The Parklands

Moss or Lichen?

Hey what’s that green stuff on the trees and rocks? It’s moss!

Well, not always….

One of the most common misconceptions when observing nature is the difference between moss and lichen. Even though certain lichens have the word “moss” in them (i.e. reindeer moss) they are in no way related to it. 

Mosses are small flowerless plants that usually grown in dense, green clumps in shady, moist areas. It can be found on the forest floor, on trees, and on rocks. Like other plants moss produces energy through photosynthesis. But unlike other plants they are seedless and only grow roots shallow enough to attach themselves to rock surfaces or tree bark. Instead of sucking up moisture through the roots they collect rain and stream water that runs over top of them.

Lichens on the other hand (shown above) are a combination of two different organisms working in concert with one another. Lichens are most often found growing on rocks and trees in many different shapes and colors. The symbiotic relationship between algae and fungus creates lichen. The algae make energy through the process of photosynthesis and the fungus provides protection from the elements to the algae. Without the protection of fungus the algae would die and without the life giving energy produced by algae the fungus would die. It is a true partnership!

A good way to remember the relationship between algae and fungus as lichens is to use this simple story:

One day Alice Algae met Freddie Fungus. They loved each other so much that they decided to get married. Alice cooked the food and Freddie built the house. But now, after so many years together, their marriage is on the rocks!

Lichen and moss are important parts of our environment. They are able to absorb pollutants and carbon dioxide from our air, making it cleaner to breath. Because they absorb so many pollutants they are a good indicator of the overall health of an ecosystem. Scientists study lichen in order to evaluate bigger trends and the impacts of air pollutants.

Come out to The Parklands to see if you can tell the difference between these two similar-looking, but very different, organisms! A great place to see both algae and lichen is on the Valley of the Giants Trail in Beckley Creek Park


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About the Author

Picture of Curtis Carman

Curtis Carman

As Director of Education, Curtis Carman oversees The Parklands Outdoor Classroom, promoting STEAM-based education through engaging, hands-on learning both outdoors and inside the classroom. Each year, his team of Education Specialists, Interpretive Rangers and Camp Counselors guide nearly 20,000 participants of all ages through school field trips, camps, Parklands Explorer, Junior Explorer and Wednesday Wonders. Prior to his promotion to Education Director in May of 2018, Curtis first joined The Parklands team as an Interpretive Ranger and led the department as Education Coordinator for three years. A native of Louisville and a graduate of Ballard High School, Curtis returned to his hometown after having worked as an environmental educator in Maine and Colorado at Acadia and Rocky Mountain National Parks. Curtis also served as Membership Manager at the Rocky Mountain Conservancy. Curtis enjoys hiking, biking, camping and kayaking.