This article, written by Bruce Fellman , first appeared in WildforaRI, Spring 2022.
Photos also by Bruce Fellman
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 (northernforestatlas.org), which features his stunning macro photography, and Michigan Tech moss expert Janice Glime’s five- volume eBook, Bryophyte Ecology (digitalcommons.mtu.edu/bryophyte- 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.”
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