February 27, 2021
Why does lichen take such a liking to trees?




By Mary Reid Barrow

Recently, I found myself stopping and staring at the lichen growing on the live oaks and pines on the Feeder Road.

Why I, wondered, does lichen take such a liking to trees in general or to a tree in particular?

Most of the time, lichen I see is ruffled or crinkly  looking and sometimes it is nothing more than smooth white blotches.

Sometimes I see lots of the pale gray- green growth on trees that are obviously dying, like the  pine tree in the photo.  Other times the tree may have lichen on its trunk, but the tree looks healthy.

But whatever it looks like, one thing is for sure, lichen is not killing the tree.  Lichen is not a parasite.  Though it grows directly on the tree,  lichen gets its nutrients from the air and water and it needs sunlight to grow.

Another thing for sure is lichen doesn’t just grow on trees.  It can take hold in many places, especially where other plants don’t grow. Lichen  can be found growing on rocks, in the sand and on bare soil,  but we are most apt to see it growing on trees.

The reason we see lichen on stressed and dying trees, is because sun-loving lichen often moves in as a dying tree begins to lose its leaves and lets more sunlight fall on its trunk and branches, explained Tim Nuckols. Tim is the owner of Nuckols  Tree Care and has been an arborist in Virginia Beach for more than 20 years.

As more leaves fall, more sunlight hits the tree and more lichen grows.  So in many cases, lichen can be an early sign that you tree is stressed, but it’s not the lichen’s fault, Tim added.

On the other hand if you have, say, limbed up a tree so the trunk is getting more sunshine naturally, or your tree leans in a certain way that  just happens to open it up to more sunlight, don’t worry when the lichen moves in, he said.   Lichen might make itself at home on a tree when there is nothing wrong with the tree.

Walking along the 64th Street Trail at the Narrows in First Landing State Park, I‘ve noticed that several  trees on the edge of the north side of trail have lichen on their trunks.  I believe that’s because the cleared trail opens up the area to sunlight and lichen finds a happy home on a happy tree.

So keep your eyes on the health of a tree when lichen moves in.  But whatever you do, don’t blame the lichen for taking a lichen to your tree!

 Do you have a favorite tree or plant with a story to tell?  What relationships have you observed  between plants and critters?  Who eats whom?  Who has babies where?   Send an email to


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