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Lichens and burritos

What do hummingbird nests and the stomachs of ancient Egyptian mummies have in common? Yes, it’s a taste for “burritos.”

of lichen is owed to Ed Yong from his piece on lichens in The Atlantic, where he describes lichens, a symbiotic organism of fungi and algae thusly: “the whole organism resembles a burrito, with ascomycetes fillings wrapped by a shell that’s rich in algae and cyphobasidium.” Boom, there you have it!The fungus envelopes the algae to protect it from desiccation creating in the process a completely new symbiotic structure. It’s stunningly photogenic, and NOT a moss, although they (the moss and the lichen) frequently hang out together.

We are blessed in the Pacific Northwest that within a hundred-mile radius we’ll see the glory of dozens of different lichens from those that inhabit the wet west-Cascades forests, to those of our alpine environs and east-side desert landscapes and canyons. The names hint at the variety and powers of these

organisms – reindeer moss (actually a lichen), wolf lichen: lichens are used in deodorant, toothpaste, salves, extracts, and perfumes, to seed clouds and anchor arboreal habitats, to eat, poison, heal and color (dye). And the wolf lichen, toxic to some, tea to others. A question for Matt Smith, Tribe Pilot founder, and other kombucha and jun drinkers - if a wolf lichen (cyanobacteria and fungus) is used to make tea, is it now a SCOBY (bacteria and fungus (yeast)), and not a burrito?

We are obsessed with lichens for a variety of reasons beyond their burrito/SCOBY duality, not least of which is their place in the carbon cycle (Note, Tribe Pilot’s B-Corp mission is to take carbon out of the atmosphere). The transformation of fungi from releasers of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, to removers as soon as they buddy up with a photosynthetic friend (algae or cyanobacteria) is fascinating. There is a beauty in this symbiosis, since lichens’ ability to survive in the harshest of climates allows photosynthetic ability to be stretched to further corners of the planet than could be reached by cyanobacteria or algae (or plants) alone.

One of the first lessons given to me by my mother was to celebrate and collect the eccentric, the weird, and the uncomfortable. Lichens certainly fit the category of worthy, and collectible - for me, the most fascinating thing about this symbiont is that the partners are drawn from across kingdoms and represent 3 distinct kingdoms of life! Not one or two, but three! Fungi, Protista (the algae), and Monera (the cyanobacteria). They are not plants (that would be mosses), and not animals (fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants).

And so in closing, a little fun. Many of the decidedly strange that I am familiar with, either real life or from mythology, tend to be synthesized from parts across the same kingdom – platypus, jackalope, sphinx, griffin, chimera, lamprey (which I heard described as eel at one end, leech at the other), burrito. Got a favorite combination? I’d love to hear. And bonus points to the most flavorful (metaphorically speaking), unless of course, it’s a course called the cockentrice*…

*an invention of medieval chefs who stitched parts of animals together to serve a new animal. A related dish, the turducken is considered the ancestor of the Easter turkey…

Sources and further reading:

Natural history of the Pacific Northwest mountains: plants, animals, fungi, geology, climate. Daniel Mathews. Timber Press Inc., 2017.

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