Delicate coral lichens look almost like snow

CHANGEABLE: In summer, coral lichens can disintegrate if stood on. But when rain arrives, they become soft and spongy, able to return to shape.
CHANGEABLE: In summer, coral lichens can disintegrate if stood on. But when rain arrives, they become soft and spongy, able to return to shape.

Large clusters of coral lichen are an attractive but uncommon feature of forest landscapes.

Most local patches are not much more than three or four metres across, but sometimes they are more extensive, resembling patches of snow.

The beautiful and delicate coral lichen pictured is different from many others in that its stems are cylindrical and hollow, with lace-like patterns formed by holes in their sides. Some similar species are less coral-like and less lacy. These ground-dwelling coral lichens are hardy plants, able to withstand dry summer conditions. If trodden on in summer, they break and disintegrate readily like any dry foliage. But when autumn rains arrive, the lichens absorb water and become soft and spongy, able to return to shape after a heavy footprint.  

However, they are susceptible to frequent trampling, and in some popular places they have been fenced for protection. Another danger in some places is theft, with lichens being gathered for their attractive appearance, or for mulch.

White-winged choughs sometimes forage within lichen patches, breaking and scattering them in their search for small creatures beneath.

The coral lichen pictured is probably Cladia retispora. It occurs over most of eastern Australia. In the Ballarat district it is uncommon. There is at least one other similar species of coral lichen locally, which is found mostly north of the Divide.

Most of our local coral lichen patches occur in open forest, often in drier places.

STRINGYBARK

The most common eucalypt in the Ballarat district is the messmate, one of the stringybarks.

Its scientific name is Eucalyptus obliqua. The second part of its name comes from the shape of its leaves: the blade does not meet in an opposite fashion at the stem end, instead having one side forming an oblique angle. This results in an asymmetrical appearance.

Although not every messmate leaf is asymmetrical at the base, the majority of them are. So this is certainly useful for identification. However, the same feature is shared by the similar brown stringybark, and to a lesser degree by the red stringybark. The best way to distinguish these is by their fruit (“gumnuts”).

Those of the messmate – readily found on the ground below a tree or attached to fallen twigs – are shaped like a wineglass. In other words, they are rather like a cup, but with the top pinched in. Each has a short stalk.

There is a space below the rim of the gumnut and the inside where the seeds form. The gumnuts of the other local stringybarks are rounder, without this space inside.