What am I talking about? Lichens.
Many are grey or too pale to get anyone very excited about their colour.
They're usually quite small so thought of as insignificant. They're some of the oldest living organisms in the world but we largely ignore them. They don't smell particularly good. To many they're not very beautiful. They're just there. Seemingly unexciting and even a bit boring. But actually they're not 'just there' everywhere.
Once you delve into the secret world of lichens your walks in the Dales will be filled with even more magic. Here's why I love lichens.
Lichens are really sensitive to pollution so are a good indicator of fresh air: that's why see them mainly in places like the Dales, and not so much on industrial estates. They may look pretty insignificant but they've got some incredible uses. We may not always acknowledge their usefulness but the Egyptians did. In fact it may be partly thanks to lichen that Egyptian mummies were preserved for us to see - lichen was used to pack their abdomens!
One kind of lichen which is found in cities, Xanthoria Parietina was used in yellow dye. Xanthos means yellow in Greek but apparently the Greenland Inuit name for it means "sun poo" which I rather like. Another common lichen called Oakmoss is an important ingredient in perfumes, keeping the scent longer (how does anyone discover that?). Tree Moss or Bearded Lichen is edible although it doesn't take great but it does contain masses of Vitamin. Another common lichen, Parmelia Saxatilis is also used for making dyes but I particularly love an old tale of its use. If you could find it growing on an old skull, particularly an executed criminal, it was thought to be an effective cure for epilepsy. Again, how on earth did that come about?
Lichens are a combined entity - fungi, which makes the structure and algae, which sort of feeds the fungi. They need each other and also the minerals in the surface where they grow so they can be a bit fussy about the trees, bark and locations they grow on. Natural navigators learn how to use this knowledge and the preferences of different lichens to find their way. For example certain lichens like moisture so grow on the northern side of trees - handy to know if you don't have a phone signal and get lost...
Look a little closer and you'll find there are three kinds: leafy, shrubby and encrusting. There's a great guide to their identification here.