Is it Moss or Lichen?

Lichens in the Manzanita Mountains of New Mexico
Lichens in the Manzanita Mountains of New Mexico

This page is for people who don't yet know whether they're looking at moss or lichen. As of April 2021, the New Mexico Wildflowers app lists 154 species of moss and 251 species of lichen. I'm happy just to know the difference, and perhaps you will be too. 


All of the photos on this page were taken in the Sandia Mountains, starting April 2021. Hover over images with your cursor  to control them. 



Mosses are non-flowering plants (they reproduce using spores). From a distance, most local moss looks like green velvet, and it's velvety to the touch. Given a chance, it often forms little green cushions. However, as one of my photos shows, moss can also look more like tiny fern leaves (Hypnales, feather mosses). Most moss leaves are one cell thick, so they're highly translucent when the sun is shining through them.




Lichens are not individual species but examples of symbiosis. The overall forms are provided by different species of fungus. Inside each lichen are algae (or in a few cases, cyanobacteria). The algae live among the filaments of the fungus, produce energy through photosynthesis, and share that energy with the fungus. The fungus provides a friendly environment for the algae, including by trapping moisture and nutrients for them. In some cases there's a third partner, a yeast.  When lichens are brightly colored, that's usually due to the algae. When you see a circular growth pattern, that indicates that the patch of lichen began at one small spot and grew outward evenly.


Lichen, Sandia Mountains, New Mexico

Remember that lichens are not individual organisms but colonies, and sometimes the outward growth of a colony is obvious (as in the circular pattern shown above). Or perhaps a piece will break off and land in a favorable place. That's handy because the fungus and the algae have been transplanted together.


When you see cup-like ascocarps emerge from the lichen, the fungus is reproducing by creating spores. Once a spore lands in a new home, the fungus needs to re-associate with an alga. Sounds like a challenge.


Lichens Sandia Mountains, New Mexico
Fruticose and foliose lichens

You may think that my photo of a tree trunk (above) shows moss and lichens. Not so. Lichens come in multiple forms, including the bushy ("fruticose") and leaf-like ("foliose") forms on the trunk. When lichens form on a live tree, they're not being parasites; instead they're using the tree as an apartment building.


In the uppermost Sandias you may encounter long, hairy lichens that you're tempted to call Spanish moss. In fact, these lichens are unrelated to Spanish moss, which is a plant of the U.S. Southeast. The correct name is Old Man's Beard (Usnea).


Usnea, New Mexico
Old Man's Beard, Upper Sandia Mountains, May 2021