Permanent Exhibition

Sylvia and Stephen Sharnoff

The Fringe of the Sonoran Desert"

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The Sonoran Desert is one of the world's most remarkable environments. This unique landscape, the original home of many indigenous peoples, supports many animals found nowhere else, and is a center of diversity for cacti. Rainfall is very scant, and sudden when it comes, but along the western coastal strip of Baja California a gentle fog frequently blows in from the Pacific, supporting an amazingly luxuriant growth of lichens.

Lichens are not plants, but rather a symbiotic association between a fungus and a photosynthetic organism. The photosynthetic partner is usually a colony of algae, or sometimes cyanobacteria. It can even be both together, one living system comprising three kingdoms! Lichens form unique structures that live for many years, often centuries. They need only sunlight, air, water, and something to grow on. In the fog zone of western Baja they become abundant, covering plants, rocks, and soil with strange forms and rich colors. As with the region's plants, many species of lichens found here do not exist anywhere else in the world.

Lichens are more than decorative: they help to create, enrich, and protect soil; birds camouflage their nests with them; and many produce effective antibiotic compounds that have been used by native peoples around the world. In the photo is lace lichen, Ramalina menziesii, which grows in coastal areas as far north as British Columbia. Here it hangs down in thick strands, almost completely covering a dead boojum tree.

Photographs by Sylvia and Stephen Sharnoff, co-authors of Lichens of North America, published by Yale University Press. Website at You may phone Stephen at 510-548-9189 or send email to

Photos from the Art Opening

These strange trees are "boojums," Fouquieria columnaris, named after a made-up word in Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark, and are only found in Baja California. The man in the photo is a European lichenologist examining the lichens growing on the boojum's surface.

A coastal rock outcropping is covered with many species of lichens. They do not need rain to survive since they soak up all they require from the fog.

This ia a closer view of one of the common kinds of lichens found on rock. It is a true fog-desert lichen in the genus Niebla, growing from Baja Sur to Marin County California, but only along the coast.

Everything exists within its own space. For these patches of lichen only a few centimeters across, their space consists of a rock surface on which they will grow for hundreds of years. They lay dormant when dry, coming to life when they can get enough moisture from the fog.

In the 19th century, sailing ships came to the west coast of Baja from Europe to collect lichens in the genus Roccella by the ton. The lichen shown in the photograph growing on a cactus was used to produce orchil, a beautiful purple dye.

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