Why are trees populated

Lichen on trees: harmful or harmless?

From a botanical point of view, lichens are not plants, but a collective of fungi and algae. They colonize the bark of many trees, but also stones, rocks and barren sandy soils. The two organisms form a community, a so-called symbiosis, which benefits both sides: the fungus can indeed absorb water and minerals from the soil and its surroundings, but due to the lack of chlorophyll, it cannot photosynthesize. The alga, on the other hand, is able to produce sugars through photosynthesis, but does not have access to important raw materials such as water and minerals due to the lack of roots. The fungus also forms the body of the lichen (thallus), whose color spectrum ranges from white to yellow, orange, brown, green and gray. It also offers the algae protection from drying out and mechanical damage.

Lichen is one of the longest living organisms on earth and can live for several hundred years, in some cases even several thousand years. However, they grow very slowly and are difficult to assert against overgrowth with competing plants such as mosses. For some forest animals they are an important, protein-rich source of food.

In a nutshell: Can lichens harm a tree?

Since you can often see lichens on older trees, which may no longer seem so vital, many hobby gardeners ask themselves whether the lichens harm the tree. In fact, they don't draw nutrients or water from the tree, they just use the trunk as a base for growing. Lichens are therefore completely harmless. Since they protect the trunk from the ingress of bacteria and fungi, they should not be removed.

What types of lichens are there?

Around 25,000 species of lichens in the most varied of forms are known worldwide, 2,000 of them occur in Europe. Depending on the type of growth, these species are divided into three groups: leaf and deciduous lichen, crust lichen and shrub lichen. The leaf lichens form a flat shape and lie loosely on the ground. Crusty lichens grow together tightly with the subsoil, shrub lichens have a shrub-like shape with fine branches.

Lichen colonize extreme habitats such as mountains, deserts, moors or heathland. In the garden they grow on stones, on walls and on roof tiles as well as on trees. Lichen is most often found here on tree bark rich in bases. Deciduous trees such as poplar, ash and apple trees are the most heavily populated.

Are lichens on trees harmful?

Even if lichens are often perceived as pests - they are not harmful to the affected trees. It is not a question of parasites that branch off important nutrients from the pathways of the bark - they only use the subsoil as a habitat for growth. Due to the symbiotic union, lichens can meet their needs themselves and do not have to remove any nutrients or minerals from the plant. The growth of the bark is also not hindered by lichen, as it is formed in the underlying dividing tissue, the so-called cambium. Since lichens do not penetrate the tree, they have no effect on the growth of the bark.

One reason for the suspicion of lichens as alleged tree pests is that the organisms often settle on woody plants that are very old or no longer appear vital for other reasons - a classic mix-up of cause and consequence. The preference of the organisms for weakened trees stems from the fact that these trees put less energy into the production of defense substances, which normally make a bark appear unattractive due to its low pH value. This favors the colonization of the bark with epiphytic organisms such as lichens and air algae.

However, there are also many types of lichen that feel comfortable on vital trees, so lichens are not always an indication of the poor condition of the infested tree. The lichen growth even has advantages, because the living beings protect the colonized areas from other fungi and bacteria. For this reason, they should not be removed either. One exception concerns the trunk maintenance of older fruit trees: The loose bark with moss and lichen growth is removed, as it offers hiding places for wintering pests such as codling moth and tree lice.

Lichen on trees: pointer plants for clean air

Since lichens do not have roots anchored in the ground and thus absorb water and nutrients from the air, they depend on good air quality. They do not have an excretion system and are therefore very sensitive to pollutants. The organisms are therefore important indicators of air pollutants and heavy metals. Lichen is rarely found in large cities, for example, as there is a higher level of air pollution and the air is also drier than in rural regions. Respiratory diseases are also more common in places where lichen does not grow. In this way, living beings also show the health value of the air for humans. So there are plenty of reasons to protect lichen instead of tackling it lightly.