British Soldier Lichen

Cluster of red-tipped British soldiers podetia
Scientific Name
Cladonia cristatella
Cladoniaceae (a fruticose lichen family)

British soldier lichen is easily the rock star of fruticose lichens. It is common and widespread throughout eastern North America. The main, vegetative portion of the lichen (thallus) consists of a patch of small, green scalelike structures (squamules) that persist even during development of the upright reproductive structures (podetia). The podetia often branch at the top, and they are tipped with rounded, ball-like, spore-bearing structures (apothecia) that are bright red — the same color as British soldiers’ regimental coats during the American Revolution.

British soldier lichen is considered a fruticose lichen, meaning it is three-dimensional as opposed to flat or crusty. Like other lichens in its genus (usually called "cladoniform lichens"), the thallus (main body) is a patch of grayish-green squamules. Cladoniform lichens can have a variety of reproductive structures, including clubs with colored tips, tiny goblets, pronglike horns, or shrubby branching structures.

A lichen is an organism that results when a fungus species and an algae species join together. Although the relationship between the fungi and algae is quite intimate and integrated, the lichen that is formed does not much resemble either of the components. Learn more about lichens on their group page.

Similar species: Missouri has about 37 species in genus Cladonia, most of which, at some point in their life cycle, exist as patches of rather unspectacular greenish or grayish, scalelike squamules. The various shapes, colors, and textures of the fruiting bodies are important for identification in this group.

  • Other Missouri cladonias with red-tipped podetia include Vulcan cup lichen (C. didyma), jester lichen (C. leporina), lipstick lichen (C. macilenta), and red-fruited pixie cup (C. pleurota), which has red ball-like structures arising all around the rim of gray-green goblet-shaped cups.
  • Some cladonia lichens have brown or tan caps but are otherwise similar to British soldiers. One of these is brown cap, or turban lichen (C. peziziformis). Its apothecia may be ball-like but are very often curled and contorted. The podetia stalks, to about 1 inch tall, are less upright than British soldiers and are often bent or twisted. It’s common, and it grows on soil, often in old fields and other sunny, open areas.
Other Common Names
Scarlet-Crested Cladonia
Red Cap
British Soldiers

Podetia height: usually less than 1 inch. These and other cladoniform lichens, as they spread, may cover several square inches of substrate.

Where To Find


British soldiers lichen grows on soil, usually amid humus or rotting wood, and on wood or bark, especially at the bases of trees. Despite its bright red apothecia, this lichen can actually be hard to spot because of its small size and usual position among many other gray-green lichens.

Cladoniform lichens are some of the first to disappear when a natural habitat is disrupted.

Life Cycle

Lichens can reproduce vegetatively or sexually. Vegetative (asexual) reproduction occurs when a piece of a lichen’s thallus breaks away and begins growing independently elsewhere. The thallus of cladonia species is usually a patch of green scale-like squamules covering a small area of substrate, much like a little carpet of moss. These squamules may easily be dislodged and moved elsewhere.

The fungal component of a lichen can reproduce sexually, in the same manner as other fungi: the spores they create are the result of a fusion of gametes (sperm and ova) that occurs in the reproductive structures of the fungus. The spores develop in, and are released from, a mushroom-like structure. In the case of British soldiers, these structures are the upright, stalked podetia, which bear the ball-like, spore-shedding, bright red apothecia.

British soldier lichen is a joy to any photographer with a closeup lens. The Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher created illustrations of geometrically impossible objects, such as infinite staircases, reflections on curved surfaces, and other mind-boggling subjects. In his famous piece “Waterfall,” he carefully drew fruticose lichens, with their branching knobby podetia and pixie goblets, as the trees and shrubs in his imaginary landscape.

Lichens are common yet mysterious. Use a hand lens to examine these combo-organisms. You may see insects living among them. The seemingly primitive nature of lichens, mushrooms, and mosses and other nonvascular plants makes them wondrous. They spur our imaginations.

Fun fact for history buffs: many sources say that this species is named for the “red caps” worn by British soldiers during the American Revolution, but British soldiers at that time word black tricorner hats, or leather or bearskin caps. It was their waistcoats that were bright red. (But, yes, the apothecia of this lichen sure look like tiny red caps!)

Lichenology is the study of lichens, and now is a great time to learn about them. Online references abound, with plenty of great closeup images. Consulting a specialist is just an email away. Not long ago, limited to in-person field trips with professors and the constraints of publishers’ printing budgets, budding lichenologists had to use black-and-white drawings in thick reference volumes in college libraries.

Soil-living lichens are important stabilizers, preventing soil from being washed away by rain or blown by the wind. In dry habitats, lichens can be a big component of biological soil crusts — delicate, dirty-looking, crunchy-textured layers on the surface of the dirt, which few people notice but are very important to the health of the land. Trampling these crusts opens the soil to erosion. It’s one more reason to stay on established trails.

In desert, tundra, and alpine habitats and regions, lichens may be the dominant form of life. It is estimated that 7 percent of Earth’s surface is covered by lichen.

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Similar Species
About Mosses, Liverworts, and Lichens in Missouri

Mosses, liverworts, hornworts, and lichens seem rather similar, but these organisms are in very different groups. Mosses, liverworts, and hornworts are small, low plants usually found in damp habitats. Unlike more familiar plants, they lack veinlike structures and do not produce flowers or seeds — instead, they produce spores. Meanwhile, lichens are not plants at all: they are a collection of different fungi that have photosynthetic algae living within their tissues.

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