The humble moss is often overlooked - even stepped on - but it’s really one of the most amazing plants in the forest.
Small but Mighty
Moss is an ancient plant, which first appeared on dry land some 400 million years ago. Many other plants got more complicated over time, but moss kept it simple. Moss is non-vascular – that means that it does not have tubes inside (like our blood vessels) to carry water to all of the parts of the plant. Instead, moss must live where it is moist in order to grow and reproduce. Moss can spread far and wide, but it can’t grow tall.
Moss is a pioneer plant because it is one of the first plants to start growing on bare or disturbed ground. Moss needs little or no soil, so it can grow on a rock or on tree bark. Over a very long time, moss can help create new soil by slowly breaking down the rock. Moss holds water like a sponge, so it helps keep the area moist for other plants.
A bed of moss is like a miniature forest within the forest. A carpet of moss is a habitat for other types of plants, as well as insects and worms, frogs and toads, and even small mammals like shrews or voles.
Like other green plants, mosses make their own food from sunlight. Green chlorophyll in the cells captures sunlight so it can be converted into sugar.
If you look closely, moss is much more than green fuzz. In one part of its life cycle, thin stalks with pods on top start to grow out of the moss. When the pods are ripe, they burst open, and tiny spores tumble out. The spores float on the wind and when they land, they can start new plants.
Worldwide there are 10,000 species of moss. Mosses don’t live in dry deserts, but they are the most common plant found in the extremely cold Arctic and Antarctic regions. Wherever it grows, moss can help prevent flooding by soaking up rain and slowing down runoff. It can also help keep nearby lakes and streams cleaner by absorbing some pollutants, like iron.
Sphagnum moss is a rock star among mosses, because it helps create bogs. A bog is an interesting and unusual type of wetland. Most bogs got their start thousands of years ago as small lakes that formed from melted chunks of ice left over from the glaciers. Sphagnum moss would start growing around the edge of the lake, and over time, the moss would pile up in thick layers and start to fill in the lake. Beneath the green, living layer of sphagnum moss on top of the bog, the old layers of dead and decaying moss form a spongy brown material known as peat moss.
The sphagnum moss bog stays damp and is very acidic because of the decaying moss. Some wonderful and bizarre plants live in this very special ecosystem. Incredible carnivorous plants, like the pitcher plant and sun dew, are like mini bog monsters. They survive by trapping and digesting unlucky insects that land on them. Other rare species, such as tamarack trees and cranberry plants, don’t mind the acidic soil and feel right at home in the bog.
In German fairy tales and legends, the moss folk live deep in the woods. The moss folk are tiny creatures who dress all in moss, and stay close to trees. The moss folk may secretly borrow things from humans, but they always pay them back.
It’s true that a rolling stone gathers no moss. Moss grows best on a on a stable surface.
It’s false that moss only grows on the north side of trees. Moss can grow anywhere there is enough moisture, and no competition from other plants
It’s false that moss will die if it dries out. Moss needs water to grow, but not to survive. Moss will become dormant if it is dry, but it will spring back to life when it gets moisture – even if it has been completely dry for years.
In Medieval Europe, moss served as an antiseptic packing for wounds.
Many cultures used moss to keep babies’ bottoms dry and comfortable.
Native Americans boiled moss and used it as a light green dye.
Moss helped keep settlers warm. They stuffed moss and mud in the spaces between the logs of their log cabins to keep out the wind and rain.
Frontier deer hunters mixed moss with the deer’s brains and rubbed into the deer hide to make soft tanned leather for clothes and shoes.
Check it out!
Moss is considered an evergreen plant, so it stays green and fresh through the fall and winter. Look for moss growing in shady spots in your yard, under trees, or on stones. Our state parks and nature preserves are also great places to see all kinds of moss along the trail.
For an amazing nature adventure, visit Kent Bog Nature Preserve or Triangle Lake Bog Nature Preserve in northeast Ohio, or ask your parents to enter your family in the lottery for the annual one-day open house at Cranberry Bog Nature Preserve at Buckeye Lake.