Sunday, December 11, 2011

Marvelous Moss

Fall is winding down and winter is creeping closer by the day.  The last few leaves dangle from deciduous trees' branches and a few perennials squeeze out one more bloom.  When all is done, what color will there be to greet us during grey days?  Green will be there - lush and vibrant green in the form of moss.

Moss is often unappreciated - especially by those trying to cultivate a lawn. I think moss should be appreciated as a beautiful, useful, and beneficial group of plants.  Mosses are quite different from most of the plants that we are familiar with.  Mosses are non-vascular plants; unlike vascular plants, they don't have tissues that transport water and nutrients throughout the plant. Trees, shrubs, perennials, and even ferns are vascular plants.  As a result of not having this "nutrient transportation" system, non-vascular plants don't get very big. Mosses are also different because they use spores to reproduce - they don't have flowers. In this way, they are like ferns.

Capsules on sporophyte - spores are inside
This might be Atrichum angustatum
Likely a species of Bryum

As I thought about this topic, I looked around for examples of moss in my own yard and other places that I went.  I was amazed at the many different ones that I found. At right is one that I find commonly growing in the cracks of asphalt on the shady side of the streets.

I took pictures of them and tried to identify them from the pictures; that was a tough job and I was not always successful just using pictures.  One thing I learned is that they can look quite different if they are not "hydrated".  They do hydrate very quickly, so just pour some water on them if you want them hydrated.  Those two pictures were taken about 5 minutes apart.

This might be Bryoandersonia illecebra

Just as with any plant, there are a number of common names associated with moss and the names seem to pair up nicely with the appearance of the moss: Broom moss reflects it's windswept look, Fern moss looks like tiny ferns, British soldiers looks like red-capped fellows, Pin cushion looks, well, like a pin cushion!  Here are some of the ones I found (and the names if I was able to identify them).  Thanks to my friend Faye for helping me with some of the identifications.

Fern moss, Thuidium delicatulum

Tree apron moss, Anomodon attenuatus (I think!)

Broom moss, Dicranum scoparium

British soldiers, Cladonia cristatella

Pincushion moss with snow
in 2010, Leucobryum glaucum

Polytrichum commune,  hair cap moss

When color and form is all you have to offer, combinations of different shades of green and textures becomes almost a work of art. I found that frequently a patch of moss can be a group of different ones:

One reason I like to have moss around is that it creates a superb environment for seeds to germinate.  In some areas it can be an early colonizer, establishing a rich environment for a new group of plants to take hold.

The area in front of my house is a mini nursery for Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) seedlings.  I have about 5 new seedlings each year in the moss.  I carefully dig them out when they are big enough and pot them up.

A new Sourwood seedling

Sedum ternatum in moss

So I encourage you to appreciate moss for it's many qualities - color in winter, texture among other plants, and an ability to nourish seedlings.  Think about encouraging any moss that you find growing in your garden and introducing moss if you don't have any already.  Look for it in shady areas in your yard - even in the grass.  When I find moss in my grass, I make plans to phase out the grass, not the moss!

For another post about the marvelous attributes of moss, including a great picture of a moss "lawn", click on over to The Grumpy Gardener.


  1. So if we are potting seeds of various types and putting them out for a winter of stratification, would it be a good idea to put a patch of moss on top to help hydrate and protect them? If so is there any chance that the sprout will not pierce the moss layer?

  2. What nature does is put the moss down first and then let the seeds fall into the moss - there the seeds get hydration and the roots go down through it.

    If you cover the seeds with moss after the fact then you run the risk that they won't get enough light to germinate. Good luck!

  3. I love moss! It's so under-appreciated!

    I don't know if there's any validity to this, but when I see moss, I tend to think that environment must be pretty healthy. I never seem to see it in poor soils.

  4. Great photos. I really love moss and am trying to create a mossy area in the landscape near the house. I think moss would look more attractive than mulch.

  5. Wow! I just checked out the link you provided. I *love* the moss lawn.

    I like the idea of phasing out grass and leaving moss--and I even have one section I *might* be able to achieve that ('though I would likely grow a variety of low-growing natives among it)...being that it is so good for nurturing seed germination, how does one keep the area pure moss?

  6. I believe that meticulous extraction of undesirables is important - tweezers may have been mentioned! But of course the fact that it is generally a shady area may help.

  7. Beautiful moss pictures. Nice job on researching the types.

    Moss is so much prettier than turf, I'm always shocked by the efforts of people that are lucky enough to have it, trying to kill it... If the moss grows, it's because nothing else cares for that spot!

    I just posted some lichens, I hope that you'll come visit!

  8. Where do I get them? I have a shady wet hillside where I eradicated ivy that needs moss. I want only natives

  9. I'm looking to do a moss lawn and had no idea the options. I would be looking for something that can take weight, has good afternoon sunlight, and plenty of water. Do you have a suggestion?