Recently I was on a California Native Plant Society field trip, the wildflower display was striking. There was much ohing and ahing and photographing of all the vibrant shimmering colors. I watched a fellow hiker – Ron – staring intently at a rock so I asked what was he looking at? “Moss” he said abashedly, “I like moss.”
Moss may very well be the Rodney Dangerfield of the green plant world. They get no respect. On this particular day all the attention was going to wildflowers with only a passing glance at the soft, vibrant carpets of moss. We do not eat moss, mosses have few medicinal properties, mosses are rarely used in landscaping, and they are usually trampled underfoot without a thought. In fact when I googled MOSS the only commercial link that popped up screamed STOP UNWANTED MOSS GROWTH!
But moss has played a major role in the evolution of plant life on land. We owe much to these overlooked plants. They are descendents of aquatic green algae that were able to grow on land, albeit damp land. From this tenuous foothold the rest of the land plants evolved – ferns, pines and true flowering plants. Moss colonies may cover 20% of the Earths surface and are very important in many ecosystems from the harsh world of the arctic to the lush tropics. They are pioneer plants often growing on rock or bare earth and contribute to soil formation, they absorb water and nutrients, they provide habitat for other plants and small animals and they are bio-indicators of pollution.
Mosses have stems and leaves but no true roots. They are totally dependent upon moisture for reproduction and survival, but they can survive long periods without water too. The only time I ever use the word “happy” in association with plants is looking at moss that has finally gotten rain after a long dry spell.
Ron it turns out is an avid amateur moss sleuth and even has one named for him. He knows it is a grand and diverse world out there. Try to give those subtle green mosses more than a passing glance on your way to the next wildflower.
This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.