Although we are beginning to see the earliest signs of spring in Big Valley, the color palette remains quite drab and dull.
One exception, present throughout the year but most striking during the gray months of winter, are the orange lichen or sunburst lichen (Xanthoria and Xanthomendoza genera). Although some species of these orange lichen grow on rocks, mosses or conifers, the ones that particularly brightened my spirits while walking along the Pacific Crest Trail near Hat Creek (CA) form bright orange, dense, knobby clusters on the small twigs of deciduous trees and shrubs.
Lichen consist of a fungus and a photosynthetic partner living in a symbiotic relationship. Lichen are often difficult to identify to species since microscopic and microchemical techniques are required. I believe these orange lichen are Xanthoria polycarpa because they have apothecia, disc or cup-shaped sexual bodies that are lined at maturity with an exposed spore-producing surface. Xanthomendoza hasseana often grows in conjunction with polycarpa, so may also be present on the photographed twigs. No matter what the exact species, these orange lichen brighten an early spring walk.
Upon careful inspection other non-orange lichen can be seen on the twigs amid the orange lichen. In the future I will talk about other lichen and their role in biological diversity, their ecological importance and use as indicators of air quality. What fascinating composite organisms!!