CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Lichens of North America

By Irwin M. Brodo, Sylvia Duran Sharnoff, and Stephen Sharnoff
Yale University Press, 2001
0-300-08249-5 (Hardcover)
xxiii + 795 pages; $69.95

No doubt many of you, inspired by my review of William Purvis’s Lichens in the July/August 2001 Mycophile, rushed out, bought it, became excited by it, and are now ready to become lichen-hounds. Unfortunately, until now, unless you live in the Pacific Northwest or northern Rocky Mountains, you would have had few accessible, well illustrated resources to aid you in putting names on your new-found friends. However, this splendid 9-pound compendium (definitely NOT a field guide) will allow anyone in North America, expert or neophyte, to identify our more common foliose, fruticose, squamulose, and crustose lichens (yes, even crusts).


Two characteristics make Lichens of North America a pleasure to read and use. The writing (by Brodo, from the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa) is clear and easy to understand, even for beginning lichenologists, and the illustrations are absolutely marvelous (there are over 920 color photographs taken by the Sharnoffs, mostly in the field).

The organization of the book is similar to that of many mushroom books -- general introductory material followed by the species descriptions. The intro includes discussions of what lichens are and are not, how they are built, and how they reproduce; describes their colors, chemistry, physiology, and growth; and places them in geographic and ecologic contexts. Additional topics include relationships between lichens and people (such as using them for dyes and environmental monitoring), lichen names and classification, and how to collect, study, and identify them. The descriptive guide follows, and is followed in turn by an appendix on the classification of lichens, a glossary, bibliography, and index.

The description section comprises approximately 635 of the book’s 828 total pages. It begins with a simple dichotomous key to the main lichen groups, followed by separate keys to genera and, in some cases, species for each main group. Additional keys to species in the larger genera are found throughout the descriptions, which are arranged alphabetically first by genus, then by species epithet.

The descriptions of over 800 species are found mostly two per page (they are of various lengths and often run from one page to the next) and are in paragraph format, which maximizes use of space. The main macroscopic and microscopic features are given, followed by reactions to the main chemicals used in identification (potassium hydroxide, household bleach, and para-phenylenediamine), descriptions of habitat and substrate, and comments, including the key features of about 700 additional species. Each description includes a map showing the species’s North American (the U.S. and Canada only) distribution and a photograph. The photos deserve special comment.


Imagine a book illustrated entirely with Harley Barnhart’s best mushroom photographs and you’ll have a sense of what this one is like. Simply outstanding, true to life images beautifully reproduced in an attractive layout. But don’t take my word for it -- check out the website listed above to see many of them for yourself. The Sharnoffs were a husband and wife team from Berkeley, California. Sadly, however, Sylvia passed away shortly before the completion of the book. That the photography was a labor of love is clearly evident. To compile the photos, they spent over 4 years and covered over 100,000 miles criss-crossing the continent in a small RV, purchased with their savings. (Eventually they received substantial grant support, but not until they were well into the project.) All told, they photographed nearly 1300 species of North American lichens (over one-third of the roughly 3600 species known to occur here) and backed up the photos with over 4000 voucher collections.

Between the easy-to-use keys and the outstanding photographs, just about anyone should be able to identify many of the lichens (s)he finds. You’ll also be tempted to give the book a prominent place on your favorite coffee table, where it will provide many hours of enjoyable virtual foraying and encourage you to get to know many lichens in advance of seeing them in the wild.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must report that the book is not entirely flawless. The photograph of Aleuria rhenana used to represent non-lichenized cup fungi is labeled A. aurantia. Mycorrhizas are ignored in the discussion of the ecological roles of fungi. The role of chlorophyll in photosynthesis is inaccurately described, and the definition of ‘lichen’ also fits mycorrhizas (“an association of a fungus and a photosynthetic symbiont resulting in a stable vegetative body having a specific structure”). Yet such things will have no effect on your use and enjoyment of the book.

In closing, the bottom-line question, “should I buy it”, is a cinch to address. Yes, buy it, if you have any interest at all in lichens, or even suspect that you might develop such an interest some day. Seventy dollars is a lot of money, but Lichens of North America is more than worth it. It’s clearly the best buy in a natural history book that I’ve seen in a long, long time. A final bit of advice … ‘Remember to bend your knees when lifting!’

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in The Mycophile 43:3, 2002

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