Bryoria fremontii “Wila/Black Tree Lichen”

Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, MT
October 24, 2015
Robert Niese

This lichen was a staple food source for about 20 different native groups (mostly Salish) of people here in the eastern PNW. Wila (which is the Secwepemctsín or Shuswap word for this lichen) grows abundantly here in our Ponderosa Pinelands, coating old trees from crown to floor in dangling blackish hair. No other species in the PNW east of the Cascades achieves quite as much biomass as B. fremontii (up to 3000kg per hectare!). Interestingly, like several other species of edible lichen in our region (e.g. Letharia), some regions have populations with high levels of vulpinic acid which is toxic when ingested in large quantities. It can be nearly impossible to tell these two chemotypes apart visually, and yet the vast majority of the tribes that subsisted on these lichens had to make the distinction daily.

Vulpicida canadensis “Brown-eyed Sunshine Lichen”

Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, MT
October 24, 2015
Robert Niese

These lichens are quite common east of the Cascades where they are regularly found on the low, bare branches of young conifers such as Pinus and Abies. It is not uncommon to see branches where almost all of the bark is obscured by lichen growth. In such instances, I regularly find eight or nine species within a few inches of each other. This particular specimen was found alongside BryoriaNodobryoria, Usnea, Letharia, two species of Cetraria, two (or three) species of Hypogymnia, as well as several crustose species I was unable to identify. That’s a lot of diversity for one tiny twig!

Tremella mesenterica “Witch’s Butter” Basidiomycota

Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, MT
October 24, 2015
Robert Niese

The Witch’s Butter complex of species (T. “mesenterica”) are our most common orange, jelly-like fungi in the Pacific Northwest. They are very similar in shape, size and color to Dacrymyces palmatus and microscopic examination is often necessary to distinguish the two normally. As a general rule of thumb however, Tremella mesenterica tends to grow on dead hardwoods, while Dacrymyces tends to grow on conifers. Tremella is an obligate parasite of the crust fungus Peniophora, which can also be a good indicator of species identity for this jelly fungus (the closely related T. aurantia is also an obligate parasite of a rot fungus, but it only grows on conifers). This particular specimen is growing in between the large, ridged bark of a downed Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa).

Letharia columbiana “Brown-eyed Wolf Lichen”

Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, MT
October 24, 2015
Robert Niese

This species is closely related to the Wolf Lichen that completely coats Ponderosa Pines in our local Missoula valleys, but this species bears large brown-black fruiting bodies (apothecia) unlike its cousin. L. columbiana is definitely one of my favorite species and I was so excited to encounter a huge population of them alongside our more common L. vulpina here in the Rattlesnake. Like most lichen, we still know comparatively little about these organisms and their genetic relationships among one another. With genetic analyses ongoing, we will likely see a revision of our northwest Letharia species in the next decade.

Larix occidentalis “Western Larch” Pinaceae

Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, MT
October 24, 2015
Robert Niese

The Tamarack colors were in full swing around Missoula last week. They appear to be fading a bit now, but we’ll soon forget to mourn their bare branches when they become adorned with snow!