Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month for July 2002

This month's fungus is Cladonia cristatella, the British soldier lichen

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British soldier lichen (among the mosses) from Minuteman National Park near Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts

Cladonia cristatella [cluh-DOHN-ee-uh cris-ta-TELL-uh] is a very common and well known lichen, found throughout the northeastern USA into Canada. There are look-alike species throughout most of the world as well. The little red "caps" that resemble the red hats worn by invading British troops during the American Revolutionary war give the lichen its common name of the the "Bristish Soldier Lichen." In reality, the red hats are actually the sexual fruiting structure of the lichen, the apothecia. But more on that later.

I took the picture of British soldier lichens on the left with the Boston Mycological Club, where I was invited to be a speaker for their 2001 annual banquet. The BMC has lots of great people, and they are the oldest mushroom club in continuous existence in North America, founded in 1895. I had a wonderful time, and even got to give a lecture at Harvard. As part of the festivities that weekend, we had a couple of forays, the most notable to Minuteman National Park, near Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. This is where Paul Revere ended his famous "Midnight Ride," as immortalized in the Poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, partially reproduced below. Here we found lots of interesting fungi, including British soldier lichens. I was very excited to see the British had, in fact, not yet left the colonies!

LISTEN, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower, as a signal light, --
One, if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm." ...

Paul Revere's ride

more British soldier lichens

As you probably already know from reading about Reindeer Lichens, a lichen is a mutualistic association between a fungus and either an alga or a cyanobacterium. In this case the photobiont is one of the green algae (Chlorophyta), Trebouxia erici. The mycobiont is a member of the Ascomycota, in the order Lecanorales, which contains mostly lichenized fungi. You should take this link for a more generalized overview of lichens.

This particular lichen is formed when the fungus and the alga come together. In a mutualistic symbiosis, both organisms should benefit. In theory, the fungus receives sugars from the photosynthetic activities of the alga, while the alga receives some minerals and a safe place to live. However, in practicality, from several studies of the movement of radioactive compounds between the associates, many lichenologists believe that this dual organism is a controlled parasitism of the alga by the fungus. In either case, there is an intimate physiological association between the two partners, and neither survives very well on its own in nature.

Interestingly, although the mycobiont requires a specific algal associate to form the lichen, each alga or cyanobacterium species is actually much more promiscuous, forming lichens with many dozens species of fungi. For that reason, the lichen actually takes its name from the name of the fungus. Thus lichen taxonomy is actually fungal taxonomy.

For many decades, the majority of mycologists, sadly, have been ignoring lichens. However, in recent years and the advent of molecular techniques, lichens have rightly taken their place in mycological studies.

For example we now know that the structure of the British soldier lichen can be called a podetium, where the entire structure is a fruticose lichen, because of the upright branches. The red structure at the top is an apothecium, an open ascocarp (fruiting body) that bears the ascospores in asci. Note that this is similar arrangement to the apothecium in the Pezizales, which includes morels, eyelash cups, and scarlet cups. However, these are not closely related to Cladonia, which is placed in the Lecanorales instead of the Pezizales because of the different structure of the asci and their arrangement.

There are apparently several species of Cladonia in North America that look at least vaguely like the British soldier lichen, including several species in the southeast and northwest. If you're really interested in the many beautiful lichens, I recommend you get a book called Lichens of North America, by Irwin M. Brodo, Sylvia Duran Sharnoff, and Stephen Sharnoff. Yale University Press, 2001. ISBN 0300082495. It's a fantastic book with hundreds of color pictures and great keys and descriptions. See their web page at for more information.

You should also visit the Wisconsin Lichen page at for some very interesting work. A very nice site!

statue of Paul Revere's horse stomping British Soldier lichens

I hope you enjoyed learning something about Cladonia cristatella and its relatives today. There's always some interesting about lichens. You should be able to find these British soldier lichens very easily in the woods, especially on hillsides. And you should even be able to *identify* them now!

If you have anything to add, or if you have corrections or comments, please write to me at

This page and other pages are © Copyright 2002 by Thomas J. Volk, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

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