Thursday, December 23, 2010


It's time again for the next installment of my series: Better Know Your Mosses!

Part 5 will be a continuation of my previous episode: How do mosses survive? Here you will learn just how different mosses really do look from each other

Growth Form

You can divide all mosses into two growth forms. They can be either acrocarpous or pleurocarpous. The singular characteristic that sets them apart is the location of the sporophyte. If it is growing terminally on the gametophyte (i.e. coming out of the top) it is an acrocarp. If it is growing out of the side of the stem it is a pleurocarp. Generally you can tell which one a moss fits into without needing to find the sporophyte by observing its habit - and I don't mean watching it bite its nails or whistling... A plant's habit refers to its morphological appearance. It could mean tree habit or an herbaceous habit. Acrocarps in mosses are generally upright and pleurocarps are generally prostrate.

Dicranella heteromalla: acrocarp

Thuidium delicatulum: pleurocarp

Life Form

Even within the 2 catagories of acrocarp and pleurocarp, mosses can look vastly different. So they have been sub-categorized into different life forms:

Dendroid: Rhodobryum roseum

Weft: Hylocomium splendens

Mat: Hypnum imponens

Turf: Polytrichum commune

Cushion: Leucobryum glaucum

There are more forms mosses can take, but these are at least most prevalent you will come across on your daily (I hope) outdoor excursions. One thing I am especially fascinated by these life forms is where they can be found. It all has to do with water. If you were to plot the frequency of these forms (from dendroid to cushion as listed above) against regions ranging from mesic (wet) to xeric (dry) conditions, you would conclude that these life forms are indeed a function of water availability.

You can see difference in morphology in areas ranging from mesic to xeric based on the nature and capacity of capillary channels within each life form to conduct water.

It makes sense if you think simply. You will find cushion forms in drier, upland areas because that form makes a dense colony, the denser the colony, the more water it can hold onto within its capillary spaces. Mosses found in saturated areas will be more "fern-like" and not as compact because of the abundance of water, they don't have to worry about loosing it. Get it?

the plasticity of moss morphology is simply amazing. You can easily judge the typical conditions of a site based on the form moss takes. Here's a real-world application: Say you are house hunting. Your Realtor takes you to see this beautiful old home. You scan around the foundation outside and notice a plethora of pleurocarpus moss colonizing the base of the home along with many little cracks in the foundation. What does that mean? It means you would potentially be the owner of a beautiful mossy home with terrible water and mold problems in your foundation!

Next time you see a little moss, read about its life in its forms; let it tell you its story and the story of its surroundings.

Friday, November 26, 2010


I am a scientist. Yet I understand that my personal life experiences and the clairvoyance (ability to read hidden messages in something) I detect in any event, as trivial as they might seem, are incomprehensible to anyone else but me; it is the way I understand the universe communicates with me.

An astrologer once advised me to follow my bliss, and only then I would lead a truly happy life. I would simply have to listen to and follow my intuition in the form of, “good feels good, bad feels bad” and opportunities will open up. The astrologer put into words what I have always felt but never consciously realized: I was put on this earth to break boundaries and stand up against the status quo. He told me I will be the one to develop new standards in my field and be an imparter of visions of the future. Of course I am not the type to accomplish this on a large-political scale, but within my own realm: my spirituality, my occupation, home-life, eating habits, et cetera. I can see myself as the first one to develop a manual in bryophyte curation techniques that will be adopted by gardens, perhaps the first to develop moss propagation techniques on a larger scale, aiding in the first comprehensive moss field guide. I embrace the idea of being different and unique; I could never want to be like anyone else but me.

A little while ago my bliss took me to Denver, Colorado. There I got to mingle with fellow plant curation and nomenclature geeks at the APGA Collections Symposium at Denver Botanic Garden. On the plane ride over I mostly had my nose glued to the tiny airplane window. The earth looks pretty amazing from up there in the troposphere. Viewing the world from that level I could see the gradual elevation differences in the topography. During autumn it is a lot easier to view the species distribution along particular microclimates. It is absolutely fascinating to view the landscape at this point in geologic time and reflect on the evolution of the planet from its inception and how life has colonized their preferential niches within the undulating land carved by glaciers several thousand years ago. Looking out at the forested areas below, the only thing I can think of is moss (of course). From this altitude the dense trees blend together creating these turfs and tufts along the land, just like moss does from our perspective. I liken this high-altitude view of the forest below as analogous to our human view of moss from our natural height. The same natural, microclimatic forces apply in the colonization of tree, shrub and herbaceous plants species along a vast expanse of land as it does for moss species along its substrate.

Really cool way to display teeny alpine plants! If only there were moss displays like this somewhere...

I am grateful to be aware of the clarity I am experiencing at this point in my life. Things are just clicking, just as the astrologer said they would. Apparently as this year is my time to wrap up some loose ends, the 1st quarter of the next year will mark some new beginnings. I cannot wait to see where my bliss will take me next!

Sunday, October 17, 2010


I have recently come to the realization that once you find your true calling in life, opportunities will fall at your feet. It has been almost comical how many people and opportunities I have run into these past few months while venturing through my life on this moss-covered path. These events are reinforcing the universe’s plan for me, as if it whispering (or shouting) “Yes, Stephanie, you are on the right track, keep going” and with each subsequent experience I gain motivation and encouragement.

Robin standing above a stone inlaid with salamander carving explaining how not only does the carving provide the perfect microclimate, but also because mosses are considered the amphibians of the plant kingdom

Earlier this month I attended a moss workshop hosted by Moss Acres in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. I was especially excited to attend this workshop because Robin Kimmerer was going to be a guest speaker and, well, we had so many things to discuss! The small group consisted mostly of landscape architects, designers and gardeners – okay, all except me. In the introduction it seemed apparent that most were there to learn how to grow moss in gardens…fast. This made me nervous. Moss is not speedy by any means, and I was afraid everyone would walk away with the notion that there is no such thing as instant moss gardens and to just give up on the idea or be prepared to deplete the local forest of its moss reserves. But these fears were put at ease as the day went on.

Al Benner gave some background on the property and their business (began by his father, David Benner) then Robin began with a little background on the evolutionary history of mosses. She reminded me of something fascinating: due to its derivation from bottom-of-the-sea dwelling algae, moss has retained its adaptation to photosynthesize at very low light levels (think not much light reaches the bottom of the ocean). That’s why it flourishes in the shady forest and underneath a thick blanket of snow. In fact there is a moss thriving happily at the bottom of Crater Lake, Oregon (over 1900 feet – the deepest lake in the US). One of the things I love the most about Robin’s approach to teaching mosses is to never forget their beauty, both within its simple physiological processes as well as the aesthetics it provides on a larger scale. Robin describes moss as “time made visible”. That is one of its greatest attributes, its ability to alter our human minds to perceive “old age” when seeing it blanketing its substrate.

Al Benner standing on their green roof

The staff proudly showed us their green roof experiment on top of a spring pump house. It looked great! I’ve been trying to advocate for the use of mosses on green roofs: they are very drought tolerant, and require a lot less substrate. They had inoculated the roof aggregate with Hypnum imponens 2 years ago and it was taking off great. This past spring, however Thuidium delicatulum took over and spread like wildfire, completely out-competing the Hypnum. Thuidium is well known as a “volunteer” species, but we weren’t complaining. In the near future they want to construct a sun-loving-moss green roof. Al took us to a sunny rock he found that had a few species growing on it and asked for their identities and if these were good roof candidates. There was Hedwigia ciliata (always found on roofs) Bryum argenteum and Cetatodon purpurea – all wonderful selections for a sunny roof! Those species would create a beautiful mosaic of color and texture on a rooftop.

Beech Grove

Our group moss-planting project ended up really being an exercise in understanding the “natural destiny” of an ecosystem: alter it any way you want, it will always want to revert back to its original state (though the extent of its originality that returns will vary). We were taken to a little beech grove at the edge of a forest with a large boulder perched to view the valley below. Immediately the group began ripping out some of the invasive vegetation and sweeping off the leaf litter from the boulder. A few of us stood back and watched a little confused as to what we were trying to accomplish here. Those who jumped in couldn’t help not noticing that the instant effects they were trying to gain by removing the vegetation and debris would only increase the erosion and wind potential in that area. All that exposed, rich humus beneath that leaf litter on the boulder would be washed away instantly. Those of us who stood back encouraged Robin to speak up: The reason why it accumulated there in the first place was because of the slope and location of that rock – its natural destiny is to accumulate leaf litter – a destiny that does not include moss (it cannot survive being smothered by debris). So creating a moss garden on that rock would only be possible if there was maintenance in removing the debris and keeping it moist (there would be water loss due to the slope of the rock). I explained that a moss garden would be possible, but it would require a lot less work on your part if you work with the natural tendencies of that ecosystem rather than fight against it. I mean, the reason why it was chosen in the first place was because it was already a special and beautiful spot; why change it?

Al exhibiting the difference in moss growth using the “milkshake method” under a biodegradable film compared to no cover (the uncovered experiment is to the left of that mossy patch

The workshop introduced ideas of “tricking” the moss into growing at a faster rate. This is what put me at ease when I feared that the attendants would not learn that moss can grow relatively fast. I already put these conditions into practice at the private estate I worked at, and shared my successful experience (Side note: I discovered this private estate was the very same one Robin wrote a chapter on in her book, I took that shared experience as another reinforcing link between us Bryophiles, really what are the odds?). I might disclose these “tricks” later on (this post is long enough), but I will say that is it just a matter of lengthening that normally short period of time when mosses can actively grow.

I loved getting to chance to sit down with Robin and the other attendants over a nice hot bowl of delicious lamb stew and talk moss. I brought up some ideas I’ve been contemplating in tackling the issues associated with curating mosses in public gardens (which happens to be the focus of my thesis). I was commend on my ideas and got great new ones. Robin also expressed her desire to create a moss field guide book and in passing I offered up my services if she needed any help, and with intense sincerity and seriousness in her face and voice she said, “Stephanie, I would love for you to help.” I was surprised and elated by her invitation, and still very excited at the prospect of helping develop a field guide to mosses: another great future opportunity!

Robin teaching us the ecological implications of preserving mosses in their natural habitats and other roles mosses play in nature

I was also happy to be proven correct in my hypothesis that the idea that mosses like acidic environments is not just because they like low pH, but because in very acidic soils many of the essential nutrients are not available to vascular plants, and therefore cannot grow there. Since mosses don’t acquire their nutrition from soil, they will happily just take over the spot that the vascular plants can’t. I’m not sure how widely known this idea is already, but I was just happy to be able to independently link these two occurrences together for my own little “a-ha” moment.
Another hopeful future goal is to develop ways to propagate mosses in a nursery setting – Robin and I agree that wild collection, however “sustainably” the collectors are gathering, is not the way to go. Those essential growing conditions would not be difficult to control, and I’m not aware of anyone who has tried.
This was such an amazing opportunity to learn, teach and network. It certainly won’t be the last time they see me! There is still so much work that needs to be done to bridge the gap between mosses and the public, it will certainly keep me busy for years to come, it is my destiny after all.

Robin Kimmerer and Cathy Cope

Thursday, September 2, 2010


It is time again for the 4th installment of my 6 part series "Better Know Your Mosses"!

How do mosses survive?

That is kind of a large, broad question. There are several factors that contribute to the survival of any living organism. I will keep this simple and focus three points that contribute to the success of mosses:

Mosses are poikilohydric. You rarely come across this word in biology. Basically it means that mosses do not have the ability to retain water. They do not have advanced tissues to help hold in water during periods of drought to keep photosynthesis going. Think of it as being "cold-blooded" in the plant kingdom: if it is wet, mosses are wet; if it is dry, mosses are dry.

Here's a more in-depth look: The average moss leaf is only 1 to 2 cell layers thick as opposed to several different, specialized layers found in vascular plant leaves. Moss leaves do not have an epidermis, vascular system or even stomata to regulate gas exchange and water retention like higher plants. Nutrients and water are absorbed directly into their cells from their environment. This lack of conductive tissues is also the reason why mosses are so small - they don't have this interior structure to hold them upright and allow them to grow higher like vascular plants. Of course those species that have the hydroids and leptoids (those nearly-vascular tissues) tend to be bigger in form.

A dessicated Grimmia. It really looked quite black from a distance. Here you can at least see some green showing through the silvery awns which aid in light reflection.

Grimmia, rehydrated. A much more lively appearance.

Okay, so how is it possible mosses have survived hundreds of millions of years if they can't even master the simple task of holding in water? Amazingly they can lose up to 98% of their water content and still survive! Upon dessication they enter a state of suspended animation. Everything freezes, including respiration and photosynthesis (both of which require water to function), and the plant waits for the arrival of that ever-so-essential liquid. The phrase "patience is a virtue" resonates even within the micro-mossy world.

You have probably already witnessed this neat little adaptation when coming across dried up, crusty clumps of moss on rocks or other dry surfaces. That moss is not dead (unless its yellow or brownish - then maybe it is), but if it is still a shade of green or even blackish in appearance, then it is still very much alive - just not kicking. This ability to go dormant in the absence of water gives moss a special advantage over any other plant: they are incredibly drought tolerant. Need a candidate for your green roof project? Look no further!

Of course this does not mean mosses are immortal. All species have a different level of a dessication tolerance - some more than others, and this can be directly related to their morphological variability (more on that in the future). No moss can live forever in suspended animation, though some can wait weeks, months, years or decades before water comes around again, and they will happily reanimate and go about their mossy lives.

Here's something you could do to watch this reanimation. Next time you come across a shriveled up mass of moss, give it a little drink and watch the leaves thirstily soak up the water and begin to unfurl right before your eyes - some species will even dance for you :)

Mosses are adapted to live in the boundary layer. This is why mosses are happiest in rock crevices or a muddy footprint. I have explained this awesome evolutionary adaptation in my "Wind" post. Be sure to check that out if you have not already!

Finally, mosses have a haploid dominant generation; their dominant generation is the n condition (has 1 set of chromosomes); or to phrase it yet another way: only in bryophytes can you find that the gametophyte is the main generation you see (ergo, dominant) and the gametophyte is always haploid in any plant species. (Please see my What? post for a more detailed/simple explanation of this unique life-cycle).

What possible advantage does having only 1 set of chromosomes in their dominant generation give them? If you think about it, this n condition possesses “immediate fitness”. Any unfavorable environmental conditions would immediately select against unfit mosses; they would not have a chance to pass their genes to next generation. It gives them a "speedy evolution" so to speak. They don't have much of a chance to hold onto recessive genes until conditions become favorable enough to disperse their progeny like a vascular plant can.

Perhaps a story can better explain it. Note: You will need to believe that evolution is, in fact, a real phenomenon!

Once upon a time, on a dry rock face, far, far away, a brand new generation of moss was born. He was named Bryum. It just so happened that the genetic combination of Bryum's parents' gametes resulted in a genetic code that caused Bryum to express a particular trait; Bryum had especially sparse and narrow leaves compared to other nearby populations. Poor Bryum was picked on by the others because he couldn't hold as much water in his capillary spaces like everyone else, and living on this hot, dry rock face, water-holding capacity was pretty essential. Tried as he might, Bryum just could not continue living this way, and after a short while Bryum died; he never even got the chance to make little moss babies of his own...

I didn't say this story would end happily ever after... but here's the moral: you better be suited to your habitat if you want to pass on your genes and give your offspring a fighting chance. It's a good thing that Bryum died, because if he lived long enough to make moss babies he would have passed on his thin-leaf genes them and they would have equally bleak futures. So goes nature's mantra: Survival of the Fittest. Poorly formed mosses will die out a lot faster, killing off those undesired traits at a much faster rate than would happen if they were much bigger, bulkier and tougher; able to weather through the tough times - but that would slow their evolution. So that's why mosses have remained largely unchanged for 350 million years - they were evolving at warp-speed from the beginning!

Chew on this: In bryophytes the sporophyte (wiry stalk with capsule that holds spores) is dependent on the gametophyte (the leafy green part). This means that if the gametophyte dies, it couldn't produce a sporophyte and thus its genes die along with it - that's it, no second chances for that generation. But in vascular plants the gametophyte (pollen and embryo sacs) is dependent on the sporophyte (the tree, shrub, or herb). A tree can keep sending out the same genetic information over and over again, whether or not conditions are favorable. If its gametophytes die, it can just keep on making new ones, dispersing it's genetic information in perpetuity in hopes that some of its offspring will be successful.

Despite their small stature, mosses are quite tough on an evolutionary scale - not to mention innovative! How amazing is it that they can just freeze in time without water and after it returns just pick up right as they left off and go about their lives? (Though the process of rehydration is a little more complicated than that). It's a good thing mosses didn't lose this trait over time, because without these qualities mosses wouldn't have a fighting chance against higher plants. The ability to colonize and adapt to those little spaces otherwise neglected by larger life forms definitely adds another dimension to the natural world - search them out next time and ask yourself "how do they do that?".

Stay tuned for the next installment and learn just how many shapes, sizes and colors mosses come in!

Thursday, August 5, 2010


On the last Saturday of July I returned once again to Sticks and Stones Farm in Newtown, Connecticut (see previous post for that adventure) Tim Currier invited me to come back and see the progress on the garden he was building for Marc Keane, so of course I took him up on this offer! The following photographs document my visit:

Entrance Sign - hard to find if you don't know where to look. It's a good thing I already knew where this place was after passing it everyday - your GPS will tell you you're arriving there a few miles before you get there!

The stone barn.

Cool twig structure.

Cool truck.

The work site.

If you squint you can see that the stones snake around to create a ravine, if you squint harder you will see some red and yellow lines on the stones marking grade level, so there will be mosses covering up to those lines. The 3 large stones in the back are the Priests.

Tim displaying the patio - the only stones that did not come from his property. To his left will be a large stone/water feature.

Tim pretending he is the large tree that will occupy that space. There will also be a wooden boardwalk that will wrap around the 400 square foot garden.

Back to work.

Woman pressing Climacium dendroides into the labyrinth.

Pile of sifted "moss soil" - very soft and acidic.

Trays growing Climacium dendroides in a lowland area.

Moss chosen to work into planters... this one. Beautiful.

Hypnum imponens growing out of Leucobryum glaucum.

Quercus evidence.

Wonderful layered texture of the tall deciduous trees, the twisted branches of the Kalmia and the dense, bubbly Leucobryum et. al. turf.

The shiny, curly leaves of Hypnum imponens.

Sun kissed.


Monday, July 12, 2010


I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. Sometimes when and why events occur seems to be a direct result of past occurrences; events that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred had some instance never happened prior. You could say it is the hand of fate weaving this interconnected tapestry. My life is filled with these silly coincidences – as if the universe has a plan for me. Maybe it does.

Last Saturday I found myself driving down a particular road past a wholesale nursery where I worked a few years ago – honestly a place I would rather forget. In all seriousness, the fondest memory I have of this place is driving down that road back home with the biggest smile on my face and laughing after my last day of working there.

Everyday I would drive past Sticks and Stones Farm. I knew they grew moss there, which was enough for me to want to visit! Yet it felt like something was telling me not to stop in; perhaps the universe didn’t want me to install a potentially wonderful memory among memories of a time in my life I didn’t want to remember.

My chance came three years later. I turned down their gravel road and walked towards a stone barn. I was greeted by Annie. I told her my reason for my visit: I was thinking of developing my grad thesis around the curation of bryophytes in public gardens. Seeing as how gardens can acquire plants through farms like this one, I wanted to learn how they do their thing. Annie was intrigued and delighted to have me there. She peeked around the side of the barn to find a young man named Andrew working with beautiful hand carved stone planters filled with moss. She told me he would be happy to answer some of my questions.

As we strolled around the property, Andrew told me the farm is technically a working preserve. Not only do they cultivate moss, but they also excavate large stone erratics from the property as well as hold workshops and retreats. We walked a path along the base of a hill side covered in Kalmia latifolia (mountain laurel) with a thick, unfragmented carpet of Leucobryum glaucum (pincushion moss) underneath as far up the hill as I could see - it looked immaculate! What was their secret? Well, I’m not going to give it away :)

Down in the lowland areas I could see hundreds of trays filled with Climacium dendroides. He showed me a labyrinth he was in the process of constructing. he tells me it is modeled after the one in Chartres Cathedral. The project was only partially filled with Climacium. He didn't want to continue since the moss he planted wasn't looking too happy. I commented that the area was pretty exposed under the thin, deciduous canopy and the gravel path didn't really provide a very saturated environment for that species, and that could explain its sad appearance.

When we arrived back up at the barn, Annie told me of a book she just started reading and thought I would enjoy it. I laughed when she retrieved a copy of Dr. Kimmerer’s book, Gathering Moss. She got a kick out of hearing about my connection to the author. At this point, Tim Currier, owner of the farm and Annie’s husband, came in. Annie served us a delicious banana-coffee milkshake as I told him the reason for my visit and my plans to begin grad school at Cornell. He mentioned he was just about to begin a Japanese-style moss garden project for a landscape architect-friend of his, Marc Keane, to be installed next spring at the Johnson Museum on the Cornell campus. He showed me some CAD drawings of this project titled, “The Garden of the Tiger Glen”. This future project will feature a 400 square foot area with a carpet of moss (Tim is thinking of using Mnium), an 18 inch deep ravine made of stone cutting through, three large stone “kings” and a large tree coming from Pennsylvania. Tim will build the garden onsite later this month (I plan to return later to check on the progress before I move to Ithaca). It will then be disassembled and transported to the campus. I am very excited that I stumbled onto this project when I did. I get to see it as Tim constructs it and the finished product next spring at Cornell! What are the odds…

But that’s not the only exciting that happened on my spontaneous excursion. Annie told Tim about my connection with Robin Kimmerer and he said that since reading her book he has wanted to view mosses under a microscope to see them as Robin describes. He then went to retrieve an old microscope he found in an old house he acquired on his property. He had no idea how to use it, but luckily for him he had all the essential instruments and a certain individual who knew exactly how to use them – me! We went out and I plucked a small bit of Mnium cuspidatum and Polytrichum commune and proceeded to mount them on slides. Only his 10X objective was functional, but it was enough to make him say “Wow!” when he stared down the eyepiece. He called over a couple other people to come and check it out – both with the same exclamation. Thirty years working with mosses and this was his first glimpse into what mosses really look like. Tim was absolutely delighted to have been taught this lesson and excitedly extended an invitation for me to come back whenever I wanted. If there was ever any work or studies I wanted to do with mosses, his property was available - which was amazing. As we parted he verbalized his hope of setting up a “moss camp” so that others can see what I revealed to him today, and of course I offered my services as an instructor.

And so there I was again driving down that road, the biggest smile on my face and laughing – so happy to have made those connections: between me and them, between them and moss, and between me, them, moss and Cornell. I love to reveal the mysteries of moss and see the people’s reactions; to show them something that is hidden to the naked eye, only viewable with an ocular aid.

So I arrived as if called by these people at a time when they needed me – just as they were going to begin this large project for a large university, just as they began reading Dr. Kimmerer’s book and needed help in getting a glimpse into the microscopic world of mosses. It's a pretty small world after all...

Note: I will add pictures once I return to check out the progress on the moss garden...I will remember my camera next time!

Thursday, July 8, 2010


If I could pick out one card out of the Tarot deck to represent my life as of late it would be the Wheel of Fortune. I have been the victim of this force before. Perhaps you have been subjected to it's wheel-like actions, unexpected encounters, twists of fate, unpredictable surprises. Unfortunately sometimes it's energy can have adverse affects. You will start to feel your life speed up drastically, make you feel as if you were caught in a cyclone, depositing you somewhere unexpected, leaving you terrified, sick and disoriented. Only recently have I recovered from my storm; the clouds are clearing and I have found my way onto a path - but the winds haven't quite settled down yet...

I tallied it up. Since 2006 I have lived in 4 states and worked in 5. I have moved 8 times (9 come August) and have had 10 jobs. I look forward to the day where I only need to file one state tax return. It appears as if I am portraying myself as a restless nomad....

This time I'm not just going to ride the winds of change; I'm taking a more active approach. A little over a month ago I had to pack up my life (again) and move to the Hudson Valley in New York. I am working at a large private garden/estate there to bide my time before classes begin. There is very limited internet access here - which explains my long absence - I do apologize...

In keeping with the theme of this blog (though I am entitled to my non-sequiturs), let me discuss the importance of wind in the life of a moss.

Air movement is essential to the distribution of their progeny - an assurance of succession; at least of genetically variable offspring that can give their species an upper hand in colonization.

For the most part - and if you squint really hard - mosses overall have a similar morphology. You will see that they perch their spore-filled capsules on top of a (relatively) long seta. Why expel so much energy into producing such a long wirey stalk? I think to answer this question I should discuss the role of the boundary layer in the life of moss.

The Boundary Layer. Taken from Gathering Moss by Robin Kimmerer

Above is a diagram taken from Dr. Kimmerer's book, Gathering Moss (again, if you haven't already, go read this book!). The boundary layer is a phenomena that can be found on any surface - be it the surface of the earth, or the surface of a leaf. This diagram shows how air moves across a surface: the friction the air encounters as it brushes against the surface creates turbulence, the area just at the surface has very little air movement, and the area above the turbulence moves freely.

Mosses have created a perfect little niche living within this micro-boundary layer. Their lack of vascular tissue makes them tiny and perfectly adapted to living closer to a surface. What does living within the boundary layer provide? More heat, water and carbon dioxide can be trapped in this area and isn't easily blown away - especially after a moss has colonized it creating nice little pockets within its leaves to hold onto these precious elements.

But when it comes time to release the spores, they don't need heat, water or CO2, just the wind. So they poke their little capsules up through the turbulence into the free-flowing air to be whisked away to another suitable habitat. The wind can carry spores miles up into the atmosphere. It's no wonder they can be found on every continent; they certainly are perfectly adapted to go with the flow.

Friday, April 16, 2010


I was quite excited to see that IAB blog generously acknowledged my blog after I commented on a photo of a super awesome, bryophyte-mimicking phasmid, Trychopeplus laciniatus

This species is found in Central America and as I understand it, not much is known about its relationship with bryophytes, but it's definitely spectacular looking!

On another note, today, after 8 months of wishing, studying, traveling, networking, intense energy focusing and anticipation, I have finally heard the news I have been waiting to hear: I have been selected as the new fellow for Cornell Plantations Graduate Fellowship in Public Garden Leadership! This year only one position was available for this fellowship making the waiting even more nerve-wracking. After hearing the news I promptly started jumping up and down, squealing, dancing, laughing, crying and in general going strait up bananas.

Ever since my curatorial internship at Mt. Cuba Center, I have set my sights on following (or perhaps in my case, blazing) a path to become a curator of a botanical garden. Talking with Amy Highland, the plant recorder at Mt. Cuba, enlightened me to the prospect that perhaps not all is lost in trying to find a career working with plants that did not involve retail/wholesale, angry/unreasonable customers, mindless deadheading/weeding, etc. It nearly blew my mind that there was someone out there who shared my passion for plant taxonomy, and I would spend the next several months working with her!

I figured the next step in my journey was to attempt to go back to school. Of course there are only 2 institutions who offer a Masters in this field: Cornell University and University of Delaware (Longwood Gardens Graduate Program). I really wanted to go back to upstate New York and Cornell was my chance! Plus I have an affinity for plants of the Northeast, sorry Piedmont...

Winter Garden at Cornell's Botanical Garden

Earlier this month I made a trip up to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York to give a presentation to a selection committee consisting of directors, professors and fellows on my past, present and future interest in the public garden field - basically an interview. Of course I talked about my mossy endeavors at Mt. Cuba which seemed to strike an interest in the panel. But what really got them going was my announcement that I would potentially like to tackle the ever-so-controversial topic of the misuse of trademarks in horticulture for my "action project". This ignited a 10 minute tangent questioning the importance of nomenclature consistencies in horticulture between the members of the panel (everyone having their own opinion). At that point I could safely say that my presentation would not be forgettable, and perhaps that was a good thing.

Not only is Ithaca "Gorges" but it is also full of beautiful mosses (I wouldn't be myself if I didn't go mossing around the area). One in particular caught my eye during a little trip around town. I eventually found myself in front of Ithaca Falls, on the west side of campus, and there, covering a rock face was Bartramia pomiformis.

I had never seen this moss in the field, but using only memories of drawings in my moss books I instantly recognized this distinguishable species. This delicate moss forms bright green, loose turfs, that to me, create a texture reminiscent of Hakonechloa on a miniature scale. Perfectly round capsules float on short setae, giving them a celestial appearance. I just love the juxtaposition of textures between the gametophyte and sporophyte. The common name of this bryophyte is apple moss - alluding to the pome-like sporophytes.

Here's to embarking on new beginnings...

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Welcome to part 3 of my 6 part series, Better Know Your Mosses!

This month's episode:

Where can you find mosses?

Well, yes, of course they are generally found is dark, moist areas. But there's more to a preferable mossy habitat than being shady and wet...

Mosses have adapted to be able to live in otherwise stressful areas, i.e., places that vascular plant cannot survive: where water availability fluctuates, where it is extremely windy (increases transpiration in vascular plants), or even where it is too hot and dry.

Basically, when it comes to competition, vascular plants win every time, there's no contest against these diminutive plants. Bryophytes have learned to colonize those niches that vascular plants cannot - so no, mosses are not taking over your lawn and killing your grass, that is just not possible, they are merely taking advantage of the areas where your grass doesn't want to grow (too shady, too acidic, etc.)

Really you can find species in a wide variety is habitats from completely submerged (Calliergonella cuspidata, Sphagnum spp.) to exposed rock faces (Andreaeobryum spp., Grimmia spp.) and everywhere in between. They have the ability to inhabit impermeable surfaces. Since they have no roots, they can live on tree trunks/branches, rocks, walls, etc.

Sphagnum species

Grimmia decipiens

Mosses are incredibly widespread. They can be found on all 7 continents. one species, Polytrichum juniperinum can actually be found on every continent - that same moss growing in your back yard can also be found living in Antarctica - how amazing is that??

That concludes my rambling on the "where" of up, find out "how" mosses live like they do!

Monday, March 8, 2010


This past Saturday I attended a lecture at the USBG Conservatory in DC given by the Potomac Valley Rock Garden Society. The topic was "Designing with Native Mosses" given by Dr. Alice Waegel. I was especially excited to attend this talk not just because of the topic, but because of the speaker.

Moss Bank at Mt. Cuba Center in the spring. The ground cover below the dogwoods (Cornus florida) and tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) is entirely moss with a cloud of bluets (Houstonia caerulea) a few Trillium species and bloodroots (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Last year I was the curatorial intern at Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware. During my 6 month stay there I had the opportunity to work with the mosses on their property. I had learned that a few year prior Dr. Alice Waegel, while on her sabbatical, came to Mt. Cuba and conducted a survey of the mosses on the property and wrote a document detailing where these mosses can be found. So I used this paper as a jumping off point for a survey of my own. I found 17 more mosses to add to the 15 she originally found. Although, for the sake of collection accuracy, I had to re-identify a couple of her findings. Ultimately I collected 32 total species, dried them and placed them in an archival quality compartmentalized box that now rests in the plant records office. Mt. Cuba hopes to add the mosses into their collection in the near future, I am satisfied in knowing that I had a significant part in their progress.

Mosses are incredibly hard to identify. Often you need a compound microscope to view the defining characteristics that are only visible under 400x - 1000x. Anyone who can give you more than the genus of a moss just by looking at it in the field is probably either 1. lying to you, or 2. already keyed it out with a microscope. I had to rely upon the kindness of the staff at Mt. Cuba to lend me some of their personal microscopes to key out these species. I spent many many many hours staring into the eye pieces - as is the life of any bryologist. It is not uncommon to literally spend days determining the name of just one moss...but it's totally worth it! I wrote up an accompanying document of these additional mosses explaining how they were identified and where they were found in the garden.

It was such a pleasure to get to talk to Dr. Waegel on Saturday. She was especially interested to hear about my stay at Mt. Cuba and my mossy project there, and that I was an advisee of Dr. Kimmerer (whose book she referenced often). I think she was able to convince the members of the Rock Garden Society to take a trip up to Mt. Cuba with all the amazing pictures she had of the property in her presentation. I may be slightly biased, but it is the most beautiful naturalistic garden you'll ever visit - call ahead for a tour!

Monday, February 22, 2010


It's time for part 2 of my 6 part series: Better Know Your Mosses!

What exactly is a moss?

Mosses are non-vascular plants. This means they do not conduct water internally... for the most part. Some more advanced species like ones found within the Polytrichum and Mnium genera have primitive vascular tissue called hydroids and leptoids; analogous to xylem and phloem respectively. These tissues can be found in the stems and the costa (midrib) of higher mosses and facilitate in the transportation of water and nutrients. But as a whole bryophytes are considered non-vascular.

Mosses are spore-producing. Rather than spreading their progeny via seeds like vascular plants, mosses use spores. Here's how mosses have sex:

Augmented diagram of the lifecycle of a moss

I numbered each step, I'll do my best to explain this as clearly as humanly possible:

1. If you pluck a piece of moss out of a clump this is what it looks like (though they do come in widely different shapes and sizes) The leafy green stuff that you see growing is the gametophyte (holds gametes) and the wirey thing with a capsule on top is a sporophyte (holds spores).

2. As the sporophyte slowly emerges from the top of the gametophyte it carries with is a piece of the old archegonial wall (see step 10). This little covering is the calyptra and may or may not be very conspicuous.

3. On top of the capsule is a tiny cap called an operculum. It covers the capsule opening while the spores ripen.

4. When the spores are ripe and ready the operculum will pop off revealing a peristome. This row of tiny teeth are thought to aid in the dispersal of spores.

5. The spores are released.

6. When a spore find a happy little spot it will begin to germinate. The filamentous green protonema emerges.

7. Small buds will appear on the protonema which will develop into a leafy plant: the gametophyte. Also forming are rhizoids: small root-like structures used to hold the moss to its substrate.

8. Shown here is a dioicous plant (moss version of being dioecious): male and female gametes (sperm and egg) on separate plants.

9. On the male plant antheridia will form, these house the sperm. On the female plant archegonia will form, each one with an egg. Only when water is available can the sperm be released and swim until they find an archegonium and travel down the neck to the egg - should they only be so lucky.

10. When the sperm fertilizes the egg a baby is born: a sporophyte, and life begins anew.

Sexual reproduction in mosses requires many factors to be in place at certain times and sometimes it just isn't worth the moss's trouble. Depending on the environmental conditions many mosses may choose to reproduce asexually through the use of vegetative propagules: gemma, brood bodies, paraphyllia, leaf fragments...

So how is the life cycle of a moss different from other plants? The difference lies in the dominant generation, i.e. the generation that you see walking around outside - sporophyte or gametophyte. The sporophyte always has a 2n condition (diploid: 2 sets of chromosomes). It is 2n because it is the product of a sperm and an egg combining which are 1n each (haploid: 1 set of chromosomes). In vascular plants the dominant generation is the sporophyte, i.e. the tree, the shrub. It is on the sporophyte (tree) that the gametophytes (sperm/egg) are borne. In mosses it is the reverse: the gametophyte is dominant: the sporophyte is borne and is dependent on the gametophyte.

That was about as simple as I could get it...

That concludes part 2...stay tuned for my next installment!

Saturday, January 30, 2010


Since this past September, I spend 2 hours of the last Saturday of every month attending and teaching a moss study group in Baltimore. It is a rare occurrence to find a group that studies moss for the fun of it - and no less a miracle that its within driving distance!

We are not a very structured organization; just a group of 10 or 15 people from all over Maryland. We spend our time identifying field and microscopic characteristics of these mosses. We use Crum's book, Mosses of the Great Lakes Forest to key out these plants. Don't ask me why we use this book, but I had no complaints since it happened to be my textbook in college. My personal favorite is Mosses of Eastern North America, but I don't own either volume...yet.

This month we had many newbies so that always calls for a brief beginners review and that is where I will begin here. Strap on your seat belts and get ready for part 1 of my 6 part series: Better Know Your Mosses! (credit to Stephen Colbert for that title)

When did mosses appear?

They emerged around 350 million years ago during the Devonian period. To put it in perspective, vascular plants didn't come around until about 140 million years ago during the Cretaceous period, so mosses were happily photosynthesizing for over 200 million years before trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants ever existed - it blows the mind!

Muscinae from Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur, 1904

This painting demonstrates not only the diversity of mosses when they first started colonizing land, but also the fact that over these last millions of years they really haven't changed at all: they got it right the first time around. Now at first glance, this painting seems a bit exaggerated, and it is, but really only in the scale of the plants and the fact that those species would not live anywhere near each other based on their prefered environmental conditions. Aside from that, the Polytrichum, Sphagnum, Andreaeobryum, Ptillidium, Mnium, et cetera that you see here look pretty much the same today.

There are approximately 22,000 species of mosses worldwide that comprise 3 classes: Bryopsida, Sphagnopsida and Andreaeopsida (for all you taxonomists out there, there may or may not be more classes depending on if you are a lumper or splitter!). Bryopsida includes the true mosses (my real focus). The other 2 classes have only one genus each: Sphagnum and Andreaeobryum. Moving up the phylogenetic tree, these 3 classes are found under the Division Bryophyta. The other bryophytes can be found in Divisions Hepatophyta and Anthocerotophyta (liverworts and hornworts respectively). And all these ranks fit nicely under Kingdom Plantae. Ta-dah!

Sometimes it feels good to regurgitate this stuff...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


How did I earn my self-appointed title of "Bryophile"? How why have I designated myself the ambassador to these overlooked and under appreciated plants? Well it all began as an undergrad at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry where I earned my Bachelors of Science degree in Environmental and Forest Biology with a concentration in Plant Biology (my fingers are tired just typing that...). I spent the first few semesters in Syracuse and the Adirondacks falling in love with plants. I took a course my junior year called the Ecology of Mosses. I've always thought mosses were cute - how often do you come across a course in their ecology?

Freshman year retreat circa September 2002. Dr. Kimmerer showing us the local flora (I'm in the red sweatshirt)

It was taught by my academic advisor and previous professor, Dr. Robin Kimmerer. At the time she had just recently published her book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, a collection of beautifully written essays that explore the world of mosses and how they relate to our own lives. A must read for anyone with any moderate interest in mosses.

During this class I fell deeply into the fascinating life of mosses. It is physically impossible for me to walk through the woods, or anywhere, really, without having to stop and pet the mosses and whisper their names. I had no idea mosses lead such an intricate, yet simplistic life. I felt privileged to have had these secrets revealed to me - and in time, you too will be privy to the secret life of mosses as well.

Friday, January 1, 2010


I figured the beginning of a new year was an ideal time to start a digital life account of sorts. As the name of this blog suggests you can safely assume there will be plenty of talk about all things tiny, green and fuzzy - specifically mosses. As one of the very few people on the planet who thinks mosses are just about the coolest things since *insert something awesome*, I feel as if it is my duty to proselytize anyone who happens to come across this site into believing that bryophytes are in fact pretty awesome. Disclaimer: There may be high concentrations of biology.

Aside from mosses, as the title alludes to, you can expect a smattering of randomness including, but not limited to, rants and ravings, paganistic lifestyle doings, secrets, revelations, natural history, apocalyptic prophecies, knitting, et cetera...