Thursday, November 3, 2016

A State Lichen

Environmental & Science Education
History of Science
Edward Hessler

In the late 19th century the decision about what lichens were was fiercely contested. Before Beatrix Potter introduced readers to Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck, Mr. Jeremy Fisher, Hunca Munca, Tiggie-Winkle, Squirrel Nutkin and others, she was a participant in this controversy as an amateur scientist.

Ms. Potter's particular field of interest, starting when she was a teen, was the study of fungi--mycology. She made many paintings of them.  Eventually, she became interested in the nature of lichens, this curious union of fungus and alga. (Later it was learned that some cyanobacteria can also be involved.) Alga or cyanobacteria both make food for the fungus; the fungus provides habitat, a place to live. The term for this relationship is symbiosis.

Potter's role in providing evidence for an idea put forth by Simon Schwendener that lichens were not a single organism but consisted of two organisms has not been without misplaced enthusiasm for what was viewed as pioneering but disrespected work.

Lace Lichen
Tom Wakeford, in his book, Liaison's of Life, provides a summary of the standard story about Potter's rejected contributions, a story of young Beatrix v. Victorian scientists as well as her commitment to a disputed view on the nature of lichens.You may read chapter one here. This link also includes a review of Wakeford's book.

Subsequent research, though, has led to a much different conclusion. Nic Fleming of the BBC has written an essay on what the historical research has revealed. It is a fascinating story. In addition, his piece includes some of Potter's lovely paintings of fungi. She was a careful observer and first-rate painter.  In short, Potter has been given more credit than she deserved. She also really thought lichens were a single organism, not two, that is, she was not a symbiologist.

However, Potter made a genuine contribution to science -- beautiful and accurate paintings of fungi, some of which were used in early field guides to British fungi.  She also discovered fungi new to naturalists and scientists, one of which was only recently re-discovered.  For other images, including those from children's books, see here.

California is the first state to designate a lichen as a state symbol.  Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill on July 15, 2015 making this designation.  It became effective July 1, 2016.  The lace lichen, Ramalina menziesii, is found along the Pacific coast and throughout the coastal ranges. View the text of Assembly Bill 1528.

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