Mosses are to be found almost everywhere in Britain- in towns and cities (see previous blog) as well as in villages; on trees, on the ground, on walls, on roofs; on stones and rocks; in woodland, in marshland and on hillsides.
Moss on the bole of the tree
Moss on a tree stump
Churchyards are often excellent sites to see plants and animals, including mosses and a bike ride to an old church provides good exercise too!
Mosses and other plants, especially lichens, flourish on old gravestones
Mosses growing on a horizontal gravestone. Can you also see the rabbit droppings?
Churchyards attract other animals too. These are freshly excavated molehills they were plentiful around the graves.
The word ‘moss’ comes from an old English word ‘mos’, meaning a boggy location. There are similar terms in Dutch and German. This reminds us that these plants – properly called ‘bryophytes’ – are associated primarily with wet places. Many mosses have prodigious ability to absorb water – rather like a sponge – which they can store in drier weather.
There are several hundred species of moss in Britain. Many have popular names that are not necessarily recognised scientifically but which describe aptly their appearance – ‘hair moss’, ‘feather moss’, ‘cushion moss’, ‘carpet moss’ and ‘scale moss’, being examples.
A close-up picture shows the feather-like appearance of this species of moss.
A dense bed of hair moss, growing on the edge of an old stream
Mosses provide cover for other types of plant and animal and can be considered in many respects to be like forests in enhancing biodiversity
A fallen tree is colonised by mosses and bracket fungi and thereby provides a home for many invertebrate animals.
Exact identification of mosses may involve the use of a microscope and this will not be discussed here. A hand-lens (x10 magnifying glass) can, however, be a great help. It will help decide as to which group of mosses a specimen belongs. At the same time a close-up view enables one to see in detail the beautiful structure of these plants.
One characteristic of most mosses is the presence on the tip of the long, unbranched stems, usually at certain times of the year, of "capsules", which contain spores.
Moss growing on the top of a wall. Capsules are visible.
A closer photo shows the capsules, silhouetted against a wintry sky.
On a frosty day the capsules (top left) of this moss stand out clearly, looking rather
like erect icicles. The intricate pattern of gossamer of a
spider's web can also be seen (centre).
The life cycle of mosses is complex. It includes a "protonema" stage where the moss resembles a thin layer of green growth, rather like felt. This can easily be mistaken for, and is sometimes mixed with with, green algae - referred to in the previous blog.
By far the most spectacular and varied species of moss are to be found in woodland – for example, in the Norfolk nature reserve shown below.
Sustained with a mug of coffee, Margaret Cooper finds an ideal spot on a cold day for studying mosses and other plants in a woodland reserve in Norfolk.
Margaret Cooper is sitting on a fallen silver birch trunk on which moss is growing.
She is examining a bracket fungus (see previous blog) which has fallen from the
tree stump on her right (on the left in the photo).
Anyone interested in seeing and identifying different species of moss can do so easily in such a forested area. The mosses found can be observed and photographed where they live or small pieces can be removed for examination with a hand-lens.
John Cooper carefully handles a piece of moss prior to examining it.
John Cooper prepares for closer, more detailed, examination of a moss. He
is using a plastic container, to which water is being added.
Immersing a piece of moss in water will help display the finer features of the moss. Many are complex in structure - and beautiful to observe.
A piece of moss has been immersed in water. Its fronds are opening and
expanding, allowing it to be examined in more detail.
Examining mosses in the field using a magnifying glass.
Many mosses are characteristically found in certain habitats, dictated by such factors as the type of substrate, including its chemical structure and pH (acidity/alkalinity). The species known as “fire moss”, sometimes “bonfire-moss”, is correctly termed Funaria hygrometrica. It commonly colonises patches of disturbed, often bare, soil, especially where there has been a fire in the past.
Funaria growing in a bare patch on the site of an old railway line. The capsules on a long “swan-neck” stalk, characteristic of this species, are not visible here.
A remarkable number of species of moss can be found in towns – in an urban car park, for example, as shown below.
Margaret Cooper points out pads of "cushion moss" on a wall in town.
Mosses are sometimes found in the most urban settings even if these initially
appear unpromising for natural history - as here, where there is a luxuriant
growth of moss next to the waste bins.
A corner of a car park. This old wall provides a sheltered home for many species
of plant, including mosses and a young male fern.
This crop of moss contains red berries that were dropped by blackbirds when
they were feeding on a cotoneaster plant on the wall above.
The cotoneaster, now caked in frost, on which the blackbirds had been feeding.
Mosses often grow on roofs, where they are readily dislodged by rain, wind or birds. They may then fall to the ground where again they are often turned over by birds, looking for food.
Alternatively unwanted moss may be swept away by a householder or a conscientious neighbour. Under such circumstances the discarded pieces of moss can be collected for closer examination.
Clearing moss from a damp area just outside a garage. Ideal material for study or a moss garden.
A lush carpet of moss that is making this driveway slippery and potentially
dangerous can be a suitable source of material for a moss garden.
One way of studying and learning more about these fascinating plants, especially if you live in a flat, is to make a ‘moss garden’. First you need a suitable container. Two examples designed for cultivating plants are shown below. Used plastic items from the kitchen, such as an empty margarine container, are also suitable.
Trays and other receptacles designed for garden plants make a suitable outdoor moss garden. They may need to be protected from birds (see earlier).
An enthusiastic Hilda Cooper holds aloft one of the containers above before
she starts her search for mosses.
Pieces of moss collected and placed in a suitable (white) plastic container
provide the beginnings of a moss garden.
Hilda Cooper collects moss for a moss garden.
Success! The start of a new moss garden.
The container needs to have 3-5cm of water added.
No, not John Cooper’s breakfast! He is preparing a moss garden indoors.
Water is carefully added to a small white dish in which a piece
of Hilda’s moss has been placed.
How do I get the moss for my “garden”? The easiest way is to collect pieces that fall off roofs (see earlier) or are dislodged naturally from walls. A clump of ‘cushion moss’ or another compact, robust, species is probably the best choice initially, but strands of the more aquatic species, such as Sphagnum, can also be used. Sometimes such strands of moss will grow. Once again, as discussed earlier, because the moss is in water, its structure and beauty are clear and they can be easily studied or photographed.
Specimens suitable for your moss garden can also be collected when garden lawns are being raked or if paths need to be cleared to facilitate access or to reduce the chances of people slipping (see above). Mosses should, however, only be deliberately ‘picked’ in this way if you are the owner of the property or have his/her permission to do so ("an authorised person"). The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 S13 (‘Protection of wild plants’) states that it is an offence if ‘any person… not being an authorised person, intentionally uproots any wild plant…". Mosses do not have roots as such, so it is not clear whether that legal restriction applies to them. It is probably best therefore to be cautious and take only moss that has already been dislodged as described above.
Your moss garden can be kept out-of-doors or brought inside. A moss garden outside will collect water naturally when it rains; at other times, it must be kept damp. A moss garden that is inside the house is best kept on a window ledge where there is plenty of light for the moss itself and to aid observation.
Check your moss garden each day. You will see changes as the green fronds grow. Stems bearing capsules may appear. The rate of growth and development of these structures will be greater indoors because of the higher temperature. Always make sure that your moss garden does not dry out!
If kept indoors, other plants, brought in with the moss, may appear. Animals can also sometimes be seen - some of these will be relatively large, such as worms and woodlice, others only tiny (use your magnifying glass to spot them).
Your moss garden is in many respects, a tiny ‘Amazon rain forest’. It is green and luxuriant, it produces oxygen because of photosynthesis, it holds, retains and liberates water, and it provides a secure home for other living things.
You do not necessarily need to keep your moss garden for a long period of time. 2-3 weeks may be sufficient. The contents can then be returned to the place from which they came – and you may like to start again with a new species.
In this blog we have not told you too much about actually identifying mosses. If you are interested in doing this, we recommend a book by our friend Dr June Chatfield “How to Begin the Study of Mosses and Liverworts”. This was published by the British Naturalists Association in 2008. See:
How To Begin The Study Of Mosses And Liverworts – British Naturalists' Association (bna-naturalists.org)
Publications – British Naturalists' Association (bna-naturalists.org)
If you become really keen consider joining The British Bryological Society:
British Bryological Society
Mosses can give us great pleasure during the apparently dull and drab winter months. They are a daily reminder, throughout the year, of how green the world is and of the inescapable fact that there is Nature all around us. Looking for and studying these plants can be stimulating and fun. Creating a moss garden can provide an opportunity for you to tend, observe, and enjoy these remarkable plants in your own home.
Written by The Coopers