Cladonia cristatella

Nebulagirl posted today’s Botany Photo of the Day in our Flickr Pool two weeks ago. She included a number of great shots in addition to this close-up, all of which you can access here. Of course, we extend our thanks to nebulagirl for this opportunity to take down and dust off our old lichen-related volumes.

Cladonia cristatella is just one of the planet’s over 14000 lichen species. Unlike most plants, lichens are composite organisms; they develop, that is, from a symbiotic association between a unique fungal species and a photosynthetic partner (often green alga or cyanobacteria). They have no hydration apparatus, and this allows them to excel in conditions and habitats fatal to most other plants (deserts, arctic tundra, bare rock and sterile soil). Lichen species’ capacity to adapt to the labile complexion of their surrounding environment is perhaps best demonstrated by their ability to enter metabolic suspension (dormancy) in order to survive desiccation in periods of intense water deprivation, proceeding to rehydrate and thrive when a supply of water again becomes available. Though they often grow on other plant specimens, lichens are not parasitic, and they have little, if any, adverse affect upon their host; some species, particularly those in the subgenus Cladina, do, however, emit into the soil chemicals that inhibit, or even preclude, the growth of competing plants. Historically, parts and extracts from lichens have served as ingredients in dyes and perfumes, and they have been thought effective treatments for lung disease and rabies. Generally speaking, humans have not made standard fare of lichens, as most species have a bitter taste and little nutritional value.

In today’s photo, Cladonia cristatella (British soldier lichen) seems to ooze from its decaying woody host like fresh magma bubbling up from the coarse veins of the ocean floor. The species joins the Cladonia fungus and the Trebouxia erici alga. A thin stalk lifts the red, club-shaped apothecia up to a height of about 25 mm. This is eastern North America’s only red-fruited Cladonia species lacking in both soredia and granules (typical reproductive structures). Unlike other lichen species, Cladonia christatella is somewhat tolerant of pollution, and this is why, in urban areas, it is more common than its relatives.


Brodo, Irwin, Sylvia Duran Sharnoff, and Stephen Sharnoff. Lichens of North America. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001.

Cladonia crisatella

15 responses to “Cladonia cristatella”

  1. Annie G.

    Is this what’s sometimes called “matchstick moss”? Also, do all British soldier lichens look like drops of blood? If so, is this an early American/Revolutionary War name? Fascinating. Thanks.

  2. Quin

    what a magical little forest from our childhood dreams – thanks for the up-close detail of what we often see but don’t get down on our bellies enough to really look at…..

  3. Meg Bernstein

    Thanks for this picture and the explanation. 14,000 species living on next to nothing. What a success story!

  4. Norm Jensen

    The common name “British soldiers” comes from the red caps they wear. They are also called “matchstick moss,” but not all species have the red top.

  5. Mary Ann, in Toronto

    I very much enjoy seeing small-scale organisms at close range. Thanks for this photo. The world of lichens and mosses is often beautiful and very interesting, reminds me of a fairy-tale landscape.

  6. Jennifer Frazer

    Gorgeous photo! We don’t have the abundant red Cladonia here in Colorado like they do back east, but I found a beautiful, large brown-tipped variety while hiking in the Gore Range in early July. One of my favorite lichens!

  7. The Hollyberry Lady

    So beautiful and unique. What a cheerful and happy peek.
    : )

  8. Lynne

    Wow. I never thought a plant could be a “symbiotic association between a unique fungal species and a photosynthetic partner (often green alga or cyanobacteria)”. This certainly broadens my definition!

  9. elizabeth a airhart

    the above reminds me of lord of the rings
    a web site called has good number
    of photos with a few showing the red caps
    growing in fields hillsides etc
    thank you all per usual

  10. Tammy

    The strip mine near my childhood house had these growing all over. I always thought they were so pretty. Haven’t seen them in forever.

  11. Alexander Jablanczy

    Lichens are fungi * algae. A symviosis a living together of two dissimilar plants as one organism.
    However I do not know what a hydration apparatus is.

  12. Carol Burton

    Many organisms are symbiotic relationships, not just plants. e.g. corals, clown fish/sea anemones. The caps can be different colors.

  13. Denis

    Elizabeth – exactly what I was thinking or maybe a sci-fi scene from a planet far, far away.

    1. Russ

      A small step, for me, from Stanislaw Lem’s sci-fi novel, “Fiasco.” No spoiler from me!

  14. Jo-Anne Somerville

    I remember a TA in a botany class I took several years ago calling this “Fairy Puke”. Whenever I see it I remember that with a smile.

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