Arboretum News

Kids Activity: Nature’s Rainbow

Seek out the variety of colors found in lichen on your next nature walk.

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Early spring is a great time to look for lichen during your nature explorations. Photo by Reba Luiken.

By Reba Luiken, Arboretum coordinator of informal interpretation

April showers bring May flowers, but they also bring some quicker rewards. When I go for a walk in the early spring, I can’t help but notice the colorful creatures growing on the bark of trees. Have you noticed the green, orange, yellow, blue and grey lichen growing on tree bark, too?  Before the trees have their leaves for the season, lichen is the star of the show!

So, what is lichen anyway? Lichen comes in many different colors and types, but all of them are made up of different kinds of organisms working together. One partner is an alga or cyanobacterium that makes food from sunlight (using photosynthesis). Another partner is a fungus that makes the hard outer structure that protects the group. And, scientists have recently discovered that lichens contain another kind of fungus that helps to make chemicals that keep diseases and predators away. Different kinds of fungi and algae make different colors and shapes of lichen. Lichen usually feels hard and grows close to the surface of a tree or rock. You can find hundreds of example photos here!

Moss is different from lichen because it’s a plant that has tiny leaves and stems. These tiny leaves are green (or sometimes brown if they don’t have enough water), and they’re usually spongy or squishy to the touch because they’re full of water. In Minnesota, moss usually grows in wet places on or near the ground or on fallen tree trunks. It’s also one of my favorite things to search for in the spring.

Want to learn more about lichen and try out some more nature journaling activities? Check out our Nature Journaling Academy class on Thursday, April 8. You’ll have the chance to get up close and personal with different kinds of lichen while learning with other families!

Study lichen and see if you can match the colors you find with colored pencils or watercolors. Photo by Reba Luiken.

– Lichen
– Colored pencils and/or watercolors + brush
– Paper (thicker works better if you’re using watercolors)
– Magnifying glass (optional) 


1. Head outside and collect some lichen. The easiest way to do this is to collect fallen twigs and bark with lichen already attached. You can take the whole branch with you!

2. Look carefully at the branch or bark you have collected. How many different colors of lichen can you find? I almost always find more than one!

3. Now it’s time to exercise your powers of observation. Get out your colored pencils or watercolors and a piece of paper. You can use a magnifying glass to look up close at the colors and texture of the lichen if you have one.

4. See if you can use your colors to match the color of the lichen. First, choose the one color that matches the lichen the best. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and have an exact match. If you don’t, choose other colors to mix into the first one and see how close of a match you can create! 

Once you start looking for lichen, you might be surprised by the variety of colors you find. Photo by Reba Luiken.


– Try out digital color matching and compare the computer’s perspective to the colors you made. If you take a photo of your lichen and upload it into Microsoft PowerPoint or another software, you can use the eyedropper tool to have the computer pick a color for you. If you have an iPhone, you can also use the Pantone Studio app to match your colors.

– Become a lichen citizen scientist and participate in the Global Lichen Hunt by uploading pictures of the lichen you find to social media.

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