Common Name: Pixie Cups|
Scientific Name: Cladonia pyxidata
Family Name: Lichen
Flower Color: None
Habitat: Dead wood and soil-covered rocks
General Bloom Dates: None
As a lichen this plant is composed of algae and fungus in a symbiotic relationship, where both plants gain benefit and neither are harmed by the relationship. The pixie cup looks like the name implies, a tiny cup (1/2 inch high) on the forest floor used by the pixies or wood fairies to sip the morning dew from. They are often found in close association with another lichen called "British Soldiers", because these have a bright red fruiting cap at the end of the stalk, making them look like the red capped British Soldiers of Colonial times.
There is little published about the various lichens (sounds like: "like-en") found growing in Minnesota, but a few tidbits do exist. Most lichens are edible, not necessarily tasty, with few containing toxic substances. The Pixie Cup is one that can be eaten if one were in dire straights and needed something to put in an empty stomach. This particular lichen was once gathered for the presence of didymic acid which was used as a treatment for tuberculosis. I was unable to find out how this was used or whether it was effective of not. Possibly the most interesting lore of the Pixie Cup is that it was valued by the Eskimos who used it as wicks in their blubber oil lamps. The lichens would be floated in the oil and then lit. The oil would burn off of the lichen and continually be replaced, allowing the lichen to remain viable as a wick for quite some time.
Modern Uses of this Plant:
Take a close look at a Pixie Cup Lichen. The cup is where the spore-like soredia reside, these are fungal hyphae entwined about a colony of algal cells. When a rain drop lands in the cup, the soredia are scattered about. The next generation of Pixie Cups will not grow until the soredia connect with the host algae, Pleurococcus on the ground near the site. When they enter the symbiotic relationship the Pixie Cup will grow again in the new location. The function of the algae in the process is to provide the food for the lichen, this is done through photosynthesis. The fungus is responsible for providing the structure to the lichen. Neither would plant would live as well individually as they do in combination.
One way naturalistŐs will explain this relationship to their prodigy makes it easy to remember. It goes like this; there once was a young woman living in the woods who was a great cook, her name is Alice Algae. She lives in a run-down house and has no money to fix it up. One day a young gentleman, called Freddy Fungus, comes along who is a very handy with tools and offers to fix up AliceŐs house in exchange for some of her fine cooking. The simple agreement is made and Freddy repairs the home and Alice feeds Freddy daily while he works. After a short time they both realize that this is a good situation that should last longer. As the story goes, Alice Algae and Freddy Fungus took a "lichen" to each other and lived happily ever after.