In Praise of Mosses

This article, written by Bruce Fellman , first appeared in WildforaRI, Spring 2022.
Photos also by Bruce Fellman

Common Fern Moss (Thuidium delicatulum) resembles a lacy fern growing on logs.

Every spring, a peculiar ailment strikes all aficionados of the green and, however grudging, growing world. You won’t find the diagnosis in any medical textbook, but what I’d call—I, too suffer from this—botanical early-itis is definitely real. Sufferers have been known to leave family, friends, and respectable jobs on the merest possibility of finding the soul-restoring first blossom of the earliest blooming wildflower, and while I’m not immune to the siren song of the skunk cabbages, hepaticas, sedges, or bloodroots, wildlings that rival garden-variety crocuses, hellebores, snowdrops, and aconites in the floral debut department, I’ve discovered a way to keep my botanical spirits up even in the flowerless days of the bleakest midwinter.

I speak, of course, about mosses, those ubiquitous but easily overlooked organisms whose ancestors were among the first bits of greenery to colonize the land. Mosses, which lack seeds, flowers, and the plumbing systems characteristic of familiar vascular plants, have been around for at least 400 million years and predate the arrival of land animals. By any measure, bryophytes, which include mosses, liverworts, and hornworts, are biological success stories, so why are they so often passed over by plant lovers?

“Mosses are hard,” explains Brian Maynard, professor of plant sciences at the University of Rhode Island and, for the past seven years, the primary instructor of URI’s legendary field botany course. “This is a group of plants that are all around us and are really important ecologically. But though we walk by them every day, most people, including, at one time, me, pay almost no attention to them.”

Worldwide, there are at least 12,000 species, and in the Northeast, certainly in excess of several hundred different mosses. But in his field course, Brian gave them short shrift and only highlighted one species, the common haircap moss (Polytrichum commune).

A weeklong, total immersion summer tutorial in sedge identification and ecology at Maine’s famous Eagle Hill Institute began to alter the scientist’s vascular-plant-centric purview. “That experience opened my eyes to all the plants that normally don’t get taught in field botany,” he told me, one spring- like day in February, as we headed into URI’s North Woods on a mossing expedition. “I realized that the small stuff I was overlooking was really special and worth learning, too.”

The following year, Brian went back to Eagle Hill to take the moss course being taught by the legendary bryologists Jerry Jenkins and Sue Williams. “That changed my whole view of the world,” he said.

So Brian took the plunge and invested in the right stuff that every dedicated mosser needs: the field guides written by Karl McKnight and company, Ralph Pope, Jerry Jenkins, and Sue Williams; achromatic 7X, 10X, and 20X hand lenses (all of them available locally, through ASC Scientific, a geological equipment supplier in Narragansett);a stereo dissecting microscope and a compound scope, along with slides, cover slips, a pair of fine-tipped forceps—”the kind used for removing deer ticks,” said Brian—a bottle of water; and the ability to get down on your hands and knees, or, as Sue Williams is fond of saying, “assume the position.” (If age and arthritis make this difficult, Brian suggests using Pentax Papilio II close-focus binoculars.)

There are numerous other resources, such as those available for free through Jerry Jenkins’s Northern Forest Atlas site (, which features his stunning macro photography, and Michigan Tech moss expert Janice Glime’s five- volume eBook, Bryophyte Ecology ( ecology/). The truly dedicated will comb used bookstores for affordable copies of moss pioneer Howard Crum’s pricey 1981 masterpiece, Mosses of Eastern North America, and everyone should everyone have Robin Wall Kimmerer’s compelling collection of bryophyte-centered essays, Gathering Moss, close to heart and the nightstand. “It’s a fantastic read,” said Brian. “Kimmerer helps us understand why we should care.”

The book provides a thorough and thoroughly lyrical explanation of bryophyte natural history, including the clearest view of that critical concept, alien territory for those of us only familiar with seed and flower-bearing vascular plants, of the alternation of generations, in which the moss divides its identity between a vegetative gametophyte and a spore- dispensing sporophyte.

Perhaps the book’s most valuable lesson, however, is the author’s emphasis on giving nature a close read. “Just at the limits of ordinary perception lies another level in the hierarchy of beauty, of leaves as tiny and perfectly ordered as a snowflake, of unseen lives complex and beautiful,” Kimmerer writes. “All it takes is attention and knowing how to look.”

With that mosser’s mantra as our guide, Brian and I, our magnifying loues rattling, combed the forest’s typical collection of habitats—rock walls, boulders, stumps, rotten logs, tree trunks, and wetlands—for the variety of species our experience told us we’d find. What can often be dismissed as a monoculture of green becomes, to the better-trained eye, a dazzling array of Lilliputian biodiversity, a forest in miniature. Indeed, Kimmerer likens it to “a complex tapestry, a brocaded surface of intricate pattern” in which “the ‘moss’ is many different mosses, of widely divergent forms. There are fronds like miniature ferns, wefts like ostrich plumes, and shining tufts like the silky hair of a baby.”

Ulota Moss (Ulota hutchinsiae) growing on non-calcareous rocks

Fern moss (Thuidium delicatulum). Brocade moss (Hypnum imponens). Broom moss (Dicranum spp.). Rock tuft moss (Ulota hutchinsiae). Tree trunk moss (Anomodon rostratus). And, alongside a stream, a number of different kinds of peat mosses (Sphagnum spp.). “When people look at mosses as impossible to learn, I always tell them, look at where they grow,” Brian explained. “Habitat narrows down your possibilities.”

So do their growth habits, from the cushion forms known collectively as acrocarps, to the branching mosses that grow in sheets, a.k.a., the pleurocarps. And those broad categories are, of course, just the beginning. “Mosses have so much to tell us,” Brian said. Get out there, in any season, and start listening



Great Swamp Botanizing Walk on the First Day of Spring 2022

On a sunny Sunday that was also the first day of spring, I led a RIWPS group on a walk in the wetlands of the Great Swamp. It had rained the day before and dense fog lingered into the morning.

Spreading Like…What?

Every spring I look forward to seeing the whitish patches that start creeping across open grassy areas. No, it’s not the last of the snow, but a tiny, very light blue flower known by a variety of names.

Bees and Meadow Bottle Gentians

One unexpected delight this September has been discovering the meadow bottle gentian, or gentiana clausa. Its deep violet flowers don’t open, remaining clusters of plump oval buds (I’ve seen as many as 22 on a single stem). Because the flowers stay closed, only “strong bees” can pollinate them.

June orchids

On June 3, 2009, Fran Under wood and I explored a bog in northern RI. We found Arethusa (Arethusa bulbosa—State endangered) an orchid that blooms in early June.

Walking open trails

In our wilder areas, spring bloomers open their petals to the sun, a welcome reminder of the inexorable cycle of nature, at least as long as there are wild places for them.

Spring sightings

Spring is an exciting time to be in woodlands because a lot is happening on the forest floor – in plain sight! That’s when the herbaceous layer gets unimpeded, warming sunlight, and when I can’t wait to get into my woods every morning to see “what’s up” – fiddleheads uncurling, spring flowers emerging, mystery plants appearing, planted species surviving, and old-faithfuls spreading.

Goodbye April, Welcome May

Goodbye April. In April the rain reigned and the wind blew, sometimes fiercely, while I was indoors wishing for warmer spring-like weather to head out and explore. Despite the rain, our dogs insisted that we walk twice a day. They set the pace, having their own sniffing and discovering to do.

A Walk in the Woods with Old Friends

Social distancing has definitely put a crimp in socializing. But hey! we’re wild plant people and we have friends that don’t have two legs or four legs or even any legs at all (except maybe the walking fern).

Native Plant Certainty Amid Uncertainty

-by Judy Ireland

Nature’s calendar has no “Stay-at-Home” rules. That’s our saving grace! In mid March, at the outflow of our “pond,” our reliable marsh-marigold caught our eye from our cozy kitchen sitting area. Its yellow flowers are always our first colorful reassurance that Spring has arrived…skunk-cabbage not withstanding!

A few days afterwards, in our native woodland, the first bloodroot was a joy to discover! Then I knew to look for the other places it always appears in developing clumps. What a treasure hunt!

Venturing out from our imposed “isolation” a few days later, our walk was rewarded by finding that our twinleaf had almost appeared overnight and was “in bud!” Many years we miss the bloom completely. It comes and goes in the breath of a spring breeze. We will watch it carefully this year.

Peeking out, beside the twinleaf, and many places through the woodland, are Virginia bluebells. Bluebells are one of my favorites and they are nearing full bloom. I will always remember as a child coming across a large patch in a New York State swamp. The blue is unforgettably vibrant!

Virginia bluebells

We purchased our plants as roots from a mail order source a number of years ago. I will never forget opening the box and finding a “tangle” of ……? Unsure of how to “plant” them, I divided them into small units and planted them in groups in semi-shaded, somewhat damp areas. Today they abound under shrubs and beside the pond. When springtime is cool, they last quite a while, and their stems of pink/blue bells waving in whispering breezes warm my native plant lover’s heart!

— Judy Ireland

Editor’s note: Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), marsh-marigold (Caltha palustris) and shunk-cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) are native to RI; Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are native to the lower 48 states of the USA, but are not considered RI natives. RIWPS has sold Virginia bluebells at its annual meeting for years.