The appetites of northern Europe’s reindeer and North America’s caribou give Cladonia rangiferina its economic value—and its common name: Reindeer lichen.
Reindeer lichens grow in northern temperate forests, boreal forests, and even tundra. Here at The Quarry Gardens, C. rangiferina forms a silvery carpet over the north-facing slope above the South Quarry pool, where only a thin layer of soil covers the rock—and where there is very little competition.
Although its highly branched growth pattern resembles moss—and it is sometimes called Reindeer moss—Reindeer lichen is truly a lichen, a composite organism of fungi and green algae. The relationship is symbiotic: The fungi provides the structure, nutrients, and protection that allow the algae to photosynthesize and produce sugars for the fungi. (Although genetically unrelated, lichens and mosses often appear together in the lousy soils they both tolerate.)
Reindeer lichens are generally latecomers to disturbed forests that have not been burned or logged in at least 40 years. This side of the South Quarry was undisturbed for at least 40 years before we put the trail through, and possibly for much longer, as the quarry access road did not extend so far to the south.
The clumps grow slowly, producing tiny new branches just one-eighth to one-quarter of an inch long per year. The age of a clump can be estimated by counting back through the major branchings along a stem. After about 20 years, the lower parts begin to decompose, so counting can be difficult. Mature clumps—degraded at the center like this one—are often estimated to be 100 years old, or more.
Soft and spongy when wet, brittle and fragile when dry, if overgrazed, burned, or trampled, the lichens may take decades to return. That’s why this slope is designated as a conservation area. Fortunately, unlike reindeer, our local charismatic megafauna have shown no taste for Cladonia rangiferina.
In the same family as Cladonia rangiferina is this Cladonia asahinae, with the apt common name Pixie cup lichen. More widely distributed globally—it also occurs in the southernmost part of South America and in the Antarctic—this cold-hardy lichen has been found growing on mosses near the North Quarry pool.
Our featured image for this issue of the blog is of Ezra and Theo Staengl stalking butterflies. the brothers, aged 14 and 10, live in nearby Afton and are avid plantsmen and birders who, because they are homeschooled, are able to travel widely in pursuit of their interests. Ezra writes a blog and Theo contributes many of the photos that appear on it. If your appetite for outdoor exploration and discovery is greater than your time or energy can support, you might try a bit of vicarious adventuring with Ezra and Theo via the blog Birds and Buds. A recent post featured the Quarry Gardens: https://birdsandbuds.com/2017/12/21/quarry-gardens-ecosystem-modeling-under-geological-constraints/ We’ve seen Great horned owls at the Quarry Gardens, but Ezra photographed this one on a nest in Lancaster County PA last March.
The young men are intrepid. The past year’s entries, for example, trace a coastal birding expedition complicated by an approaching snowstorm, a visit to a rare and endangered Loudon County ecosystem, arduous treks through places with such names as Grimm Prairie, Difficult Creek, Dismal Swamp, and Iceberg Lake Trail, among many others—all in search of rare birds, butterflies and flowers almost never personally observed by those with less spirit. Although not particularly rare, this Zebulon skipper was photographed by Ezra in nearby Orange. It is one of 40 species of butterfly documented so far at Quarry Gardens.
Speaking of plants, Ezra said: “I think I like plants so much because they form the most basic, tangible foundations for nature. Their seemingly never-ending diversity is all around us and is so rarely noticed. They create and define different ecological communities, which host all the other life forms. I also like plants because the rich, multi-species reactions and relationships that define these plant communities are still so poorly understood.” If you think he seems young to be so focused, note that he also plays soccer, and violin in the Evans Orchestra, one of the Youth Orchestras of Central Virginia.
Birds and Buds includes a link to Ezra Peregrine on flickr, a stunning portfolio of hundreds of images that document the brothers’ sightings of plants, birds, butterflies, odonates (dragonflies and damselflies), and other animals throughout Virginia, around the U.S., and on travels to other countries.
The final photos are of Ezra’s Nashville Warbler photographed in northwest Ohio, and his Green jay photographed in south Texas.
Wednesday’s snow made a fine job of delineating architecture along the Quarry Gardens’ main trail. Birds were active. Small animal tracks everywhere. The rock steps ascending the north side of the North Quarry pool were clearly defined. Here are a few more snow scenes:
The quarry pools remain partly frozen, with swathes of snow-covered ice, bare ice, and open water.
The Giant’s Stairs were a study in contrasts.
As were random soapstone boulders with marks left by gang-drilling.
A few days ago, while we were having breakfast, a pileated woodpecker darted among trees in front of the house. Given that these large birds claim many acres of territory, perhaps it was the same one who made these rectangular holes in a tall Virginia pine along the North Quarry trail. These holes, just 4-6 feet off the ground—and active—fresh chips on the snow—were likely made pursuing tunnels of wood-boring insects such as carpenter ants or beetles. Those made for nesting or roosting are rounder, only large enough for the birds to come and go—and much higher, 15 to 70 off the ground. We’ll see if another animal finds a use for these. (The tree is one of those our Giant lichen orbweaver spider used last summer. See July 26 post, in News Archives.)
The quarry pools, some 40-feet deep, have not frozen for many years, but this year they did freeze in early January’s record-breaking chill. Unfortunately, because of the depth of the quarries, the frozen top adds little of interest, especially because, for whatever reason, it is not very smooth. On the other hand, the lake on our adjoining property, which is fed in part by Bern’s Run stream that runs alongside the quarries, did freeze to a depth of four to six inches for the first time in 25 years. Enough to walk on (or even drive over with an ATV). And so we did (the walking part). It was magical. Art everywhere.
The featured photo is of a cedar stump in a shallow spot. Though the image appears to show rough ice stacked around the edges of some uninhabited coastal island, it’s just an old stump, and the entire surface is smooth. Looking straight down through clear ice beside it, we could see the tree’s roots, splayed around it and extending for many yards. But then, anywhere we looked was wondrous.
With temperatures in the low 20s, even a bright sun produced no liquid.
Good boots kept us upright on the glassy surface.
Under the surface glaze, we found layers of—what?—frozen bubbles?—occurring in areas where
we believe are underwater springs. Below the ice in the shallows, we spied small fish swimming.
Trompe l’oeil—twice: This is not a black-and-white photo. Nor is it a rough
place in the ice. Belying all that texture, the surface is mirror smooth.
Here, too, although the leaf appears to be sitting on top of the ice, it is embedded
under a smooth surface in what appear to be carbonated bubbles.
There were odd exceptions to the smoothness. Caught in depressed circles near
the lake’s north end were these Beech leaves, some sticking up into the air.
It was not a quiet walk on the water. The ice made eery, echoing booms as lengthy cracks developed, lacing the surface (which mostly remained smooth). That, numb fingers, and waning light finally drove us—with our treasured photos and memories—back to shore.
The featured photo, our Christmas wreath—a species of moon lichen with an anomalous hole in the center caused, says Devin Floyd, by some event or condition at the site—was photographed on a rock at the Quarry Gardens in July by Robert Llewellyn. Bob has been photographing nature for more than 40 years; more than 30 books featuring his photography are in print. Among them are Remarkable Trees of Virginia, Seeing Trees, and the latest, The Living Forest: A Visual Journey into the Heart of the Woods. We thank him for this delightful image, and for being a friend of the Quarry Gardens.
During the past year, a number of other artists have also visited and shared their work with us. Here is a sampling:
Steve Edgar caught this brooding image of the north quarries wall last summer when he visited from Northern Virginia. Steve has a special interest in abandoned America, and constantly experiments with techniques to take viewers deeper into the sites he photographs.
Rhonda Roebuck brought a group from Flower Camp to sketch in April, and returned this image of quarry walls, from which trees seem to be able to grow from even the narrowest ledge. Rhonda teaches nature journaling—how to capture both small wonders and scenic landscapes.
Melissa Dicker organized a June evening meet-up and picnic here for members of the Northern Virginia Sierra Club. She captured this image of the north quarry bridge, then had fun with it at home using PRIMZA filters.
Lee Wood caught both a black swallowtail nectaring on butterfly weed and a great spangled fritillary on bee balm on a trip around the quarries in August.
It is a joy to see what others see when they visit the Quarry Gardens. We look forward to hosting more artists in 2018.
In the meantime, enjoy these beautiful holidays!