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Green plants, lichens and fungi: what’s the difference?

There is an abundant diversity of plants and fungi in Britain.

On any walk outside you’re likely to be able to find a wide range of flowers, ferns, mosses, lichens and fungi. But what are all these different things?

Dr Trevor Dines, botanist and Plantlife Cymru Conservation Manager, reveals all below:

Green plants

Pyramid orchid, a vascular plant © Beth Newman/Plantlife

Pyramid orchid

These are all the plants that contain chlorophyll – the green stuff that absorbs sunlight and makes sugar from water and carbon dioxide through the process of photosynthesis.

Green plants are split into three groups: vascular plants that have an internal plumbing system (flowering plants, conifers, ferns, horsetails and clubmosses), bryophytes that are small enough not to need internal plumbing (mosses, liverworts and hornworts) and green algae (such as diatoms, stoneworts and green seaweeds).


Cladonia floerkiana Devils matchstick © R G Woods

© R G Woods

Lichens are special organisms where an alga grows together with a fungus and form a new structure.

The alga can photosynthesise (like green plants) and provides the fungus with sugars, while the fungus provides the alga with a protective structure in which to grow.

It’s a perfect symbiosis, and one that gives rise to lichens that can grow almost everywhere, from shaded tree trunks to sun-baked rocks and even toxic mine waste.


Pink waxcap © Ray Woods

Pink waxcap

Fungi are neither plants nor animals, but are in a separate Kingdom of their own.

As well as the familiar mushrooms and toadstools, they include brackets, truffles, rusts, yeasts and moulds.

Fungi play critical roles in ecosystems; for example they break down organic matter and form symbiotic mycorrhizal associations with many green plants, without which neither would survive.