When I was young, I spent time with my aunt in a rural area of Ohio. One weekend, in a corner of the pasture at a nearby Amish farm, my aunt suddenly dropped to her knees, exclaiming, “Look at these. They’re Canadian Soldiers!” When I crouched down beside her, I saw small bunches of stalks barely half an inch tall, the color of my favorite Crayola crayon, “Seafoam green.” Each stalk bore a brilliant red cap, hence the name Canadian Soldiers.
I have since learned that everyone but my aunt calls them British Soldiers.
Although the British Soldiers (Cladonia cristatella) were growing in a tangle of moss and grasses, they were neither. They were spore-bearing parts of a lichen, the rest of which carpeted the ground in small leathery cups. Recently I photographed the same lichen at Angle Fly.
Lichens challenge our notion of plants or animals as individual organisms. A lichen is a partnership of an alga and a fungus. The alga provides the fungus with food through photosynthesis (which fungi cannot do for themselves). In turn, the fungus provides the alga with shape, reproductive structures (the “soldiers”) and an ability to soak up and retain water and nutrients. Together, they create a form that is different than either of them on their own.
There is actually a great deal of this inter-species dependency in nature, including our own reliance on food-digesting, vitamin-producing bacteria in our digestive system. When we eat “live culture” pro-biotic yogurt, for instance, we are replenishing the microorganisms that live inside of us. That’s not very different than what the British Soldier parters are doing.