Wilderness Underfoot: A green carpet of life

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Moss is an enduring and tenacious plant, a builder of soils and a steady destroyer of rocks

There’s something about moss that makes it seem tougher than nature itself, the way it contentedly nestles into the darkest, dankest crevices of rock and deadwood, defiantly shimmering in vivid green against the surrounding decomposition. In literature, moss is synonymous with the ebbing of time. In art, it represents earthiness and character.

While admiring the prettiness of moss as you walk along woodland trails, you might want to stop and take a closer look at this plant. It is more complex and varied than you might expect.

The mosses are the third most diverse group of plants, after flowering plants and ferns; there are more than 10,000 species of moss. Each species has adapted to its own favorite habitat—certain kinds of rocks, soils, rotting wood or bark. Moss grows in sweltering rain forests and frozen arctic tundra. It grows from the sea’s edge up to the highest mountaintops, well above the timberline.

A tuft of moss is actually a colony of tiny plants, with perhaps hundreds, thousands, or millions of individuals clustered together. If you gather pinches of moss from different locations, you’ll begin to see the differences among the various moss species. Their leaves look like the wildly intricate fractal designs generated by computers, and although we think of the mosses as green, their colors range across the spectrum.

Mosses play an extremely important role in nature. They protect against erosion of soil in the forest, and they help to insulate arctic permafrost. They help break down the earth’s rocks by forming a base material and first layer of soil upon which other plants can attach, form roots and pry into the rocks’ crevices. And they form habitats for tiny creatures such as insects, millipedes and spiders.

To reproduce, an individual moss plant sends up a shoot with a spore-filled capsule. In dry weather, the capsule dries out and its end drops off, allowing the spores to be distributed by the wind. If a spore lands in a suitably moist location with just the right conditions for its particular species, it will begin to grow. Without a vascular system for transporting moisture and nutrients, moss must absorb what it needs directly from its surroundings. If the weather becomes too dry or too cold, moss will slip into a period of dormancy.

This is a tough plant, capable of coming to life years after it has been dried out or frozen solid. One species of Siberian moss that had been frozen and dormant for 40,000 years (well into the last Ice Age) quickly recovered after being thawed! Some scientists speculate that even after a million years in ice, such mosses could be revived.

From the May 5-9, 2006, issue

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