I interviewed Dr. Kimmerer back in late September 2010. Here is the final copy of the interview that will be published in Public Garden magazine in the near future!
A Love Affair with Mosses
Stephanie Stuber interviews Dr. Robin W. Kimmerer
Robin Wall Kimmerer, associate professor of environmental and forest biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), has published numerous articles on the biology and ecology of mosses, as well as articles on traditional Native American knowledge of the natural world. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, her first book, won the 2005 John Burroughs Medal for Natural History Writing. Dr. Kimmerer was my academic advisor at SUNY-ESF as well as my professor of botany and the ecology of mosses. Her course “Ecology of Mosses” is what first introduced me to bryophytes; her teaching style and the course material itself hooked me instantly.
SS: You’re someone who sparked my passion for plants and started me on the path towards presenting the plant world to the public through plant collections, so it is great to get your perspective on collections and their public benefit. What is your view on public gardens, and what do you think they can offer people?
RK: The botanical literacy of the general public is sadly so limited. Public gardens are a good venue to educate folks on the many gifts like ecosystem services and cultural services that plants provide. The deeper appreciation for the ecological and cultural roles for plants contributes to people’s sense of community with the natural world. I hope that also translates into attitudes and actions that benefit plant conservation. Plants sustain us—the public’s appreciation of that fact may lead them to sustain plants. Plus, plants are just plain beautiful and fascinating, right?
SS: I completely agree! It is the bryophytes (specifically mosses) that most fascinate me. What is it about these tiny plants that made you become their advocate?
RK: Everything! One—that they are a constant source of discovery. We know so little about them and their complex lives. And all you need to begin appreciating mosses is the art of paying attention. Attention and patience are part of the "radical slowness" movement...to step back from the frantic pace of contemporary life and appreciate what is around us. Two—their diversity is an endless source of fascination. That diversity is linked, of course, to their ecological specialization. Three—their simplicity; they are excellent teachers of the lessons of "small is beautiful" and the way that they work with natural processes in order to flourish (like boundary layer ideas). Four—their cooperative behaviors, like sharing water among the colony. Five—that they can be so small and yet have such a large ecological impact. Six—their indicator value; the way their presence conveys so much about the environment. Seven—that I've been privileged to learn so much from mosses; advocating on their behalf is an act of gratitude and reciprocity, I suppose.
SS: It’s amazing how something so tiny can make such an enormous impact! I am always pleased at how open people seem to be to the world of bryophytes and how easily they experience that “wow” factor. One of the first things I suggest to people is to read your book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. For those who have not yet had the pleasure of reading it, what would most surprise them about the life of a moss?
RK: I think that people are most amazed by the poikilohydric nature of mosses (their inability to retain water), and that, therefore, they have adapted to survive extended periods in a desiccated state. This is reflective of the significant ecological roles and ethnobotanical uses of mosses.
SS: All of those awesome traits are explained well in your book. What are some misconceptions you would like to clear up that might ease some concerns related to their impact and survival within their environment?
RK: People know so little about mosses, it’s hard to think they have conceptions—let alone misconceptions! Related to that, I suppose the most important misconception is that moss is one taxon. People speak of growing "moss" as if it were one thing, instead of thousands of different species, each with their own particular habitat needs. They need to understand this in order to prevent over-exploitation, conserve habitat, et cetera. This is especially an issue in the growing attention moss gets in horticulture; you can't think of "moss" generically, you have to consider the species as individuals. I guess I'd also mention the misconception that the moss [sold] in craft stores and elsewhere is "farmed" in some way. It’s not—it’s wild harvested and largely not in sustainable ways. People should know the damage done by the moss trade. That applies to peat too. Public gardens could play an important role in educating people about the consequences of moss harvesting.
SS: I remember years ago looking at a faux flower display that had sheets of moss under it. From a little sample, I was able to identify at least five species. It was sad thinking about how it had been ripped off rainforest trees to get there.
I’ve been fortunate to work at public gardens that love mosses and encourage their colonization—a great first step! Most people know that moss is slow growing, so with patience being a key factor, what conditions result in a happy moss colony? How long might it take for it to fill in?
RK: Impossible to say because all mosses are different. You might get a speedy colonization by Bryum argenteum or Funaria hygrometrica in a few months, while others take years. That's very much to my point about considering mosses as individual species. Some flourish in moist shade and deep organic matter and some, of course, in xeric places on mineral soil. Generally shade and moisture and lack of vascular competition are primary needs.
SS: Given a few essential conditions, mosses can flourish and create a nice carpet in several years. My thesis focuses on issues surrounding the curation of mosses in public gardens. This includes the myths and “tried-and-true” methods in moss gardening. What difficulties might gardeners face when incorporating mosses into the landscape?
RK: [Essentially] failure to match specific species to specific habitats and microtopographic (the shape of a surface on a micro-scale) and substrate specificity requirements for many species.
SS: It can be difficult to pay attention to something so small in scale. Why should people embrace mosses in the garden and appreciate them in forest environments?
RK: Oh, gosh –so many reasons. I haven't yet mentioned the idea that mosses contain complex ecological communities within them; that's an important element for sure. [They offer] beauty, texture, color... The notion that they are "low maintenance" is not quite accurate.
SS: Most public gardens could probably find a spot where a colony is already thriving. When creating a moss garden, my philosophy is that if you already have some, just encourage it rather than bring more in from elsewhere. Would you agree?
RK: Yes, Yes, Yes! My philosophy on moss gardening is that the gardener should create the kinds of conditions mosses will flourish in. And then the mosses will colonize on their own; if you invite them (with a proper habitat), they will come. This avoids the whole problem of trying to match transplants to specific sites; the mosses will sort it out on their own. I do not condone unsustainable wild harvesting of moss for transplant. It rarely works and wastes all those mosses and the communities they shelter.
SS: The sustainable collection of wild moss populations is a major issue. What do collectors need to be aware of when on expeditions? How much moss is needed to start a displayable collection? How much needs to remain to leave that wild population intact?
RK: We don't know the answers to these questions from research. They are important ones and we should err on the side of only collecting very common, abundant moss species with a proven track record of success in the target habitats—if they are to be collected at all.
SS: What are some better ways to educate the public on the natural history and ecology of mosses in a garden setting?
RK: I'd like to see big magnifying devices (I've heard of big lenses mounted on the ground, with kneeling pads around them for people to observe them). Messages about diversity of moss types and the associated conservation issues are important too. Ethnobotany of mosses would be a fascinating display as well.
Stephanie Stuber, a graduate of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, has spent the past few years working in the field of horticulture in nurseries and public gardens. She is currently in the Public Garden Leadership Program at Cornell University, studying the issues associated with the curation of mosses, which to her knowledge have never been presented as a collection by any public garden in the world. She hopes to change that. She can be contacted at sms555 at cornell dot edu