Book Review

A Color Guidebook to Common Rocky Mountain Lichens

By Larry L. St. Clair
1999; 242 pp.; ISBN 0-8425-2454-1
M.L. Bean Life Science Museum and Brigham Young University Press Publishers.

Until the 1970s, mushroom-hunters wanting to determine the names of their finds had few good resources to help them. Available guides were broad in scope and light on color illustrations. Things changed with the publication of books like Mushrooms of North America by Orson Miller, the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms by Gary Lincoff, and Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora. Now, several fine guides are available and important regional works, such as Bill Roody’s Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians are beginning to appear. Although it has taken longer for the publication flow to start, good color guides to lichens are becoming increasingly available so that, in many parts of North America, it is now possible to identify a substantial number of the common species and many of the less common ones as well. This guide, by BYU Professor of Botany Larry St. Clair, provides another handy resource for hard-core licheneers as well as mushroom hunters with a desire to expand their fungal horizons.

AuthorThe focus area for the book includes the Rockies south into the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and the “sky islands” of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. The content is typical for a field guide. The Introduction explains what lichens are (composite systems, or symbioses, consisting of a fungus and a photosynthetic green alga or blue-green bacterium), the basics of their structure, how they grow and reproduce, the distinctive chemicals that many of them produce, and their ecological occurrence.

Because many lichens are quite sensitive to air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, they can be used as biological monitors (biomonitors) of air quality. For instance, if sensitive species are present in a given area, you can conclude that the air quality there must be good. St. Clair includes an extensive discussion of sensitivity in terms of effects on morphology, physiology, growth, reproduction, and general ecology of lichens, and concludes this section with a discussion of the methods used to evaluate air pollutant impact on lichens.

The remainder of the introductory material deals with the classification of lichens, the tools needed to identify them, and how to collect and preserve specimens for identification. All of this introductory material is presented clearly and concisely. The lichens follow, and the book concludes with suggestions for further reading, a glossary, and a list of references cited. There is no index, but the lichens are presented alphabetically so the lack of one is not an issue.

The treatment of the lichens themselves begins with a set of keys to growth types and genera. Further keys to species are included with many of the genus treatments. The key leads are brief, focusing on the more critical features. In many cases their use requires access to a microscope (size and shape of spores, number of spores per ascus, etc.), ultraviolet lamp, or chemicals such as household bleach, potassium hydroxide, and Melzer’s reagent or similar iodine solution.

Brief descriptions of each genus are included, followed by a key to species in cases where more than one exist in the area. Not all of the species in the keys are described. For those that are, the descriptions include morphological characteristics, chemistry, substrate/habitat, and air pollution sensitivity. There are no general comments. A color photo is included for each described species. These are of very good quality, especially those provided by Stephen and (the late) Sylvia Sharnoff. They will allow the casual user to tentatively identify many of the species without resorting to the keys and chemicals.

From a user’s perspective, I would have found the following features helpful:

While these things would have improved the book, it still will be quite useful and, at $19.95, is an excellent buy. I recommend it. It will provide an interesting diversion for those times when the fleshy fungi are in hiding. But wait, there’s more! Through the generosity of the author, earnings from the book’s sale go to a good cause -- an endowment fund for support of the lichen herbarium in the ML Bean Life Science Museum at BYU. With science and natural history funding becoming less and less available across the US, under-appreciated organisms like lichens and mushrooms need all the help they can get.

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in The Mycophile 46:5, 2005