Field guide review: Lichens of North America

Lichens of North America, written by Irwin M. Brodo, Sylvia Duran Sharnoff and Stephen Sharnoff, is part textbook, part coffee table book. A wealth of information coupled with gloriously large and detailed pictures makes this lichen guide book a goal for all other genre!

Weighing in at almost ten pounds and boasting an incredible 828 pages, this book will certainly not fit in your backpack. Published by Yale University Press in partnership with the Canadian Museum of Nature, the book is split into to two distinct sections.


Part 1: about the lichens

These first 115 pages are an in depth look into the world of lichens that are part fungi, part algae. I find myself referring to this section often.

  • Lichens: The Organism – covers what lichens are (and what they are not)
  • How Lichens are Built: Thallus Shapes and Structures – describes the different growth forms and special features of lichen
  • How Lichens Reproduce
  • Colors of Lichens
  • How Lichens Live: Physiology and Growth – how lichen produce, share and use food, and how they select their habitat, including their water, temperature and nitrogen needs
  • Lichen Chemistry – lichens produce more than 600 “secondary” unique compounds. This section covers what they are, what they do, and how to use them to identify lichen species
  • Where Lichens Grow: Their Substrates
  • Lichens and Ecosystems – lichen’s (very prominent) place in the ecosystem. Per this guide, lichens are the dominant vegetation in 8% of the Earth’s surface!
  • Geographic Distributions in North America
  • Lichens and People – how lichen has been used by humans over the course of history, and the human impact on lichens
  • Environmental Monitoring with Lichens – lichen as pollution monitors, how effective is it?
  • Naming and Classifying Lichen – the families of lichen, and a discussion of scientific vs common names (you know how we feel here!)
  • Collecting and Studying Lichen – my favorite section! Conservation, tools needed, hints for safe transportation of lichen, preparing them for study, chemical tests to run and hints on photographing
  • Using This Book to Name a Lichen: Hints and Conventions – an in-depth description of what you’ll find in the second section of the book, and how to navigate it

Part 2: guide to the lichens

The first 27 pages are a lichen key, and as long as you are up on your lichen lingo, it’s a semi-quick way to find the lichen you are looking for. There is a large glossary in the back of the book to help you out, of course, too!

Lichens of North America, lichen guide book, dirty botanyRather than key a lichen out, though, I’m more apt to just flip through the pages, stopping to look at pictures and read descriptions, adding species to my “Ohhh I must find that lichen!” mental list.

Broken down alphabetically by genus, and then alphabetically by species, there is a detailed genus header with physical descriptions, chemistry notes, habitat summary, and additional notes. A genus-specific key is included as well.

For each species (805 total) there is at least one large picture, a range map, and physical, chemical, and habitat notes. If it’s possible to key a lichen species out without turning to a chemical analysis, you’ll be able to with this guide!

This lichen guide book is not inexpensive, but is certainly worth every penny. You can purchase here at Amazon, and the price seems to hover in the $110-125 range. If you love lichens, though, you will NOT regret this purchase. Lichens of North America is a favorite on the dirty botany bookshelf!

Be sure the check out our other favorite nature guide books, including field guides for mushrooms, insects, mosses, and plants here!


Brodo, Irwin M, Sylvia Duran Sharnoff, and Stephen Sharnoff. Lichens Of North America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. Print.

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