This and that about winter gardening
It's January and it is cold and wet outside and I'm not inspired to do any gardening. I'd rather curl up in a big chair by the fire with a good book and my faithful dog. In fact I'm not inspired to even write about gardening, but I would like to tell you about some plants I find most interesting.
The first is deer moss . You know, the gray stuff growing on tree branches in the foothills and mountains, its stems sometimes branching like antlers.
Well, it's not a moss but a lichen. Lichens are a large and very successful group of plants in which each species consists of a fungus living in close relationship with an alga (a primitive aquatic plant).
The fungus forms the outer layer (cortex) while the inner layer (medulla) contains algal cells entangled in fungus threads. The close association produces a more elaborate and longer living plant than either partner can form alone. It's called a symbiotic relationship. The algae, which can photosynthesize, contributes food and the fungi furnish water and shade.
Lichens are beautiful plants and they can thrive under extreme cold and drought. They have the remarkable ability to grow on rocks and tombstones, in deserts and in the Far North. There, where snow blankets the ground for months on end, many lichens are used as emergency rations, and foraging deer and caribou depend to an enormous extent on these plants.
People living where lichens are common have found many uses for these interesting plants. Boiled in water they yield fabric dyes used most notably by Scots in coloring Harris tweed.
Next time you're up in the mountains look for some of these lichens. In moist forests like the coastal Redwoods there are bright green Lung lichen. Look for irregularly lobed sheets with a wrinkled surface growing on tree trunks. Map lichen is found on exposed rocks. Look for bright green to yellow-green crust with a black outline and fine black lines running through it. Also on rocks, especially where birds perch and often on tombstones, look for the orange Start lichen. It's a bright orange rosette attached to the rock.
Many different lichens are found in California. One is called British Solders because it has 1-inch tall stalks and scarlet tips. Another is called Pixie Cups because they look like little gray goblets. Look for yourself. You probably have some type of lichen in your own garden.
Another really interesting plant is my Little Leaf Palo Verde tree (Cercidium microphyllum) that is covered in tiny, brilliant yellow flowers in spring. It's a tough desert tree that is actually flourishing in my garden, where I planted it a few years ago before I knew better. This surprises me since it's a drought tolerant tree that is now getting moderate water in clay soil.
Well, maybe it doesn't dare die because I'm a master gardener. (Ha, little does it know the amount of plants I've killed with either too much or too little water.) Anyway, this tree has such tiny leaves that you hardly notice them.
Well, you say, how does it photosynthesize if it has no leaf surface to catch the sun? This is what is so interesting and beautiful about this tree - all its trunk and limbs are bright green. It photosynthesizes through the bark.
Now, back to my armchair and good book.
Backyard Gardener runs Saturdays. Write to our local master gardeners in care of the Appeal-Democrat, P.O. Box 431, Marysville, CA 95901.