Moss is the simplest and most primitive of all land plants, yet its importance in the ecological world is a wonder.
Did you know that there are over 22,000 types of moss? They are intricate and beautiful; we will share their importance in the ecological world. Up close with a geology lens, also known as a loupe, it is exciting and fun to view the several variations of the color and textures: fronds like miniature ferns, wefts like ostrich plumes, and shining tufts like the silky hair of a baby. Some mosses have leaves with large coarse teeth, some with a saw blade edge, delicate fringe along the edge, and accordion pleats.
Moss is found in various colors of green, resembling puzzle pieces that weave through and drape over snags, decaying logs, rocks, and more.
There are many scientific names for different types of moss. A few that may appear to be most common are Sphagnum, which grows in bogs, and peat, which is compressed sphagnum moss.
Here are some interesting facts about these non-vascular plants:
- Mosses lack flowers, fruits, and seeds and have no roots.
- They have no vascular system, which does not allow the xylem to carry water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves or phloem, transporting food from photosynthesis to the rest of the plant.
- Moss is limited to living in the shade, flourishing in a humid, moist zone for the alchemy of photosynthesis to occur.
- A thin layer of water over the one-cell thick moss leaf is the gateway for carbon dioxide to dissolve and enter the leaf, transforming light and air into sugar.
There is a lot of life in one gram of moss.
According to Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of The Gathering Moss, a mix of science, personal and teaching experiences, and Native American heritage, “the quality of life in one gram of moss from the forest floor, approximately the size of a muffin, would harbor 150,000 protozoa, 132,000 tardigrades, 3000 springtails, 800 rotifers, 500 nematodes, and 200 fly larvae. That is a lot of life in just one gram of moss, equivalent to approximately 1/4 teaspoon.
Regarding egg and sperm reproduction, only half of the parents’ successful genes are passed to the offspring, and those genes are shuffled in the lottery of sexual reproduction. Most mosses can clone themselves from broken-off leaves or other torn fragments.
Traditional Native American knowledge is rooted in intimacy with the local landscape where the land is the teacher, learning a plant’s particular gift by being sensitive to where it comes and goes.
Here are some interesting facts that Dr. Kimmerer brings to our attention in Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses:
- Contrary to the belief, mosses cannot kill lawn grass as they provide benefits like nutrient cycling to soil and other plants. The moisture-enriched mosses provide the perfect nurseries for trees, ferns, seeds, fungi, slugs, and bugs.
- Moss eradication in the northwestern part of the U.S. is big business. Hardware stores stock their shelves with chemicals that end up in streams and threaten the salmon’s food chain.
- Cracking and curling roof shingles exposed to intense sun exposure can be protected by a roof covered in moss. Currently, there is no scientific evidence that supports or refutes the claim that mosses lead to shingle degradation and leaky roofs. Moss adds a cooling layer in the summer and slows stormwater runoff when the rains come.
- Mosses have an exceptional ecological restoration for removing toxins from water and binding them to cell walls. This idea is being used to explore wastewater treatment and the protection of urban streams.
- Mosses are much more sensitive to air pollution damage than higher plants, making them useful as biological contamination monitors.
- Mosses were widely used as everyday tools in the hands of women for diapers, sanitary napkins, and insulation from the cold, including lining bags with moss to keep indigenous children warm.
- Sphagnum moss was once used as bandages. In World War 1, when cotton supplies were limited by warfare in Egypt, sterile Sphagnum became the most widely used wound dressing in military hospitals.
- Peat has a long history of human use, ranging from therapeutic baths in ancient Greece to ethanol generation today. For people who live in the north, burning bricks of dry peat was a vital heating source. The smoke of slowly smoldering peat permeating malted grains gives scotch whiskey its rich taste of autumn. Peatlands are drained worldwide and used as a soil additive and growing certain specialty vegetable crops such as lettuce and onions.
- Soft and pliable mosses are woven into the nests of many bird species (winter wren, vireo, coastal birds, etc.) to cover the bottom of the nest, which will cushion the eggs and provide an insulating layer. Bears, flying squirrels, voles, chipmunks, and many other animals line their burrows with bryophytes.
- Moss pickers harvest moss in the forest, cram it into burlap bags in the woods, and collect cash from companies who sell it to the florist to line flower baskets and create designer moss sheets. The moss that is harvested could take years to regrow, if ever.
So, using your loupe, check out the moss on logs or snags on your next outdoor wilderness or forest adventure and see what is happening in that microscopic ecosystem.
Written by Yvonne Dwyer
Master Naturalist and OPL Content Contributor
“It is truly an honor for me to be a contributor to One Planet Life. By sharing my experiences and lifetime of learning, I hope to inspire conservation, sustainability, stewardship, and awareness of enjoying the natural wonders of the world for the wellbeing of people and the planet.”