≡ Menu

Staghorn Lichen (Letheria vulpina)


This staghorn lichen reminds me of a Patagonia catalogue.

Let me explain that.

It was years ago. I was working on an alternative-energy catalogue. Since this was back when most people hadn’t heard of solar panels, we were basically making it up as we went along. Some of the people in the office brought in popular, innovative catalogues to give the writing and art team ideas.

One of them was a Patagonia catalogue with a theme: the colors of nature. Usually, said the introduction, people tend to think of “natural” colors as low-key. Sober. Muted.

This catalogue was looking at the brilliant neon colors of nature, and made its point with photos.

I had always thought of natural colors as rather sober, too. That catalogue got me looking around and seeing that that isn’t entirely true. Staghorn lichen is one of the plants that proves that natural colors aren’t all quiet.


Lichens are a partnership of fungus and algae; the algae feeds the fungus. Staghorn lichen is a fruticose lichen, the most “advanced” form (according to whom? And what makes a plant advanced? And how can we humans be the judge of that, anyway, when we don’t even have enough judgement to keep our own planet clean and livable? Okay, next paragraph.).

Fruticose lichens have stalks with branches, and hang or stand upright, unlike other kinds of lichens, which lie in in flat rosettes or little curls and ruffles. Sometimes fruticose lichens commonly called mosses, since they look fluffy, but they are not.

Staghorn lichen is also called wolf lichen (the Latin name, vulpina, refers to a wolf). I can’t bring myself to call it that because its little branches remind me at least somewhat of a buck’s antlers, but not at all of a wolf. There may be some explanation for “wolf lichen” that makes it more palatable, but I don’t know it.

While many lichens prefer rock, staghorn lichen grows on trees. I’ve mostly seen them on the red firs, junipers, and ponderosa pines. They may grow on other trees, but I haven’t noticed it.

Western gardeners are inclined to think of moss and lichen as problems that must be fixed. What if we began thinking of them as assets to our gardens? A part of the tree and rock community? If they are not harming other plants, why not  revel in their beauty? The Japanese are way ahead of us on this, of course, and I have also seen some pictures of Italian gardens with sumptuous moss and lichened rock.

Seeing a plant in the wild puts it in a new light. Up in the mountains, in the dim conifer woods at dusk,  walking on soft duff in cool shadows, staghorn lichen glows like a beacon, a neon sign, a brilliant surprise.



Tracy I. Storer and Robert L. Usinger, Sierra Nevada Natural History, University of California Press, 1963. (They have recently come out with an updated version, but this is the one I own and still use.)


{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Nancy Bond September 18, 2008, 6:58 pm

    That glow-in-the-dark photo is stunning! I should say it would be a surprise — absolutely fascinating.

  • Darla September 20, 2008, 3:21 pm

    I got my first staghorn this summer and am trying to learn something about them, any info is greatly appreciated.

  • Pomona Belvedere September 22, 2008, 2:07 pm

    Nancy, it took me soooo long to get that photo, so I’m glad it works. The camera truly does see differently than we do–but you know that.

    Darla, I’m curious to know how you got your staghorn–did it just appear? Did you cultivate it in some way? Are there actually nurseries that sell lichens? I’m just learning about the lichen world myself, so I’d be interested to know. And if I can dig up any more useful info for you, I’m happy to pass it along.

Leave a Comment