Photo: A mossy rock along a riparian corridor. Identification of mosses is complex and technical, requiring microscopy in most cases. For the photos in this essay, I will not attempt to identify the individual species, but merely appreciate the beauty of different mosses.
With even a little bit of seasonal moisture arrives another seasonal pleasure – the velvet green sheen and silvery shimmer of mosses everywhere I look – on wood, on stone, on ground seemingly lifeless just moments ago.
I first became friends with my garden in the winter of 2007 – 2008, a wet winter with long periods of grey and fog. My garden includes some areas of dappled light shade beneath large trees, it includes some low, poorly draining areas and areas with stone. That winter, one of the surprises that lifted my spirits after too much grey and rain and fog was the light slanting, shimmering, across surfaces carpeted with moss. And not just one kind of moss, but many kinds that wove together over spans of clay dirt, over large rocks, up aging tree trunks and out across branches like an elegant winter evening wrap.
The Ecology of Moss:
Mosses are a group of spore – rather than seed – bearing land plants, and together with the hornworts and liverworts, they form the larger category known as Bryophytes. Ferns and flowering plants are vascular and are also known as Tracheophytes.
Bryophytes are small, herbaceous plants that grow closely packed together in mats or cushions on rocks, soil, or as epiphytes on the trunks and leaves of forest trees. They are world-wide in distribution in all environments. Although they can occur in deserts or be submerged in water, most mosses occupy moist, shaded habitats. Bryophytes are non-vascular, they have no root systems and they do not conduct water and nutrients through their living tissues, rather water moves through their cells by osmosis. Because they reproduce by spores, rather than seed, their life-cycle consists of several distinct stages of life.
Mosses live in every environment across the globe except salt water. According to different sources, there are between 12,500 and 14, 500 known species of mosses and more than 600 are described as native to California.
“During the prehistoric age, these carpets [of moss] were the basis for developing topsoil. As moss grew thicker, the bottoms of these thick masses formed rich compost, and in this soft, moist, rich environment ferns had their beginnings. For many mosses, shade and acidic conditions are helpful, and moisture is key to success,” describes Joel Lerner of the Washington Post in an article on moss gardening.
Scientists who study mosses are known as Bryologists. Scientists believe that “the bryophytes [as a group] are a ‘key’ in our understanding of how the modern land plants (comprising the three bryophyte lineages plus the vascular plants) are related to each other phylogenetically and how they came to conquer the land environment.”
For the most part, mosses grow in the presence of moisture and go dormant during dry periods. They are extremely drought tolerant and can remain dormant and still viable for extended periods of time and then spring back to life again when moisture returns. The look and habit of a moss in dormancy is often required to confirm species identification.
While moss is sometimes battled by homeowners and gardeners when it is growing in areas that they don’t want it, or think they want something else, the fact is that moss is not parasitic, but an epiphyte which with no root systems derives its moisture and nutrients from the air, not from other materials. So moss itself does not do direct harm to trees, rocks, concrete (roof tiles, driveways) or other plants.
The History of Moss Gardening:
Mosses have long been used a decorative elements – sometimes the defining element in ornamental gardens. Traditional Chinese and Japanese garden designs include purposeful Moss Gardens. The oldest known Moss Garden is Saiho-Ji in Kyoto, and dates back to the 1300s. According to sources, “ironically, the moss for which the temple is known was not part of Mus?’s original design. French historian François Berthier indicated that the garden’s ‘islands’ were ‘carpeted with white sand’ in the fourteenth century. The moss came much later, of its own accord during the Meiji era (1860-1912), when the monastery lacked sufficient funds for upkeep.”
So the oldest moss garden in the world shares benign neglect as a design approach with my garden. Beauty can arises in surprising ways.
My first spellbinding moss garden experience was at the Bloedel Reserve on Washington’s Bainbridge Island. Built in the 1950s, the Bloedel’s Moss Garden is a lovely example of a purposefully planted and well-tended design.
After my first winter in the North State, I thought: I should plant a moss garden! But just one long hot 7 month summer without rain, as well as the adamant response of at least one gardening friend that we in the Valley did not in fact live in an environment suitable to moss gardening, dissuaded me of this vision.
But that doesn’t stop me from me fully enjoying the fleeting seasonal pleasure of the almost-pop-up-installation-art quality of nature’s winter moss gardens that are radiant silver, bronze and every shade of green vignettes across around our region and in my garden after a good rain.
While there are several sources for purchasing moss with which to garden, I would highly recommend you use what your garden already grows naturally and enjoy it as it evolves during the periods of time it is naturally prone to growing. It will add to your pleasure of your space and cause no harm to the environments around you.
There are many interesting methods for increasing the mosses already in your garden and introducing them into other areas of your garden conducive to their growth – including creating moss-covered terra cotta pots for an aged looked. Search the web for “creating your own moss covered pots” to learn more.
Gathering moss?: ?a natural and cultural history of mosses???
Robin Wall Kimmerer?
?Oregon State University Press?, ?Mar 1, 2003?????
Moss Gardening: Including Lichens, Liverworts, and Other Miniatures Hardcover – Illustrated, Timber Press
by George Schenk
Mosses and other Bryophytes, An Illustrated Glossary, Bill and Nancy Malcolm
California Mosses, Bill and Nancy Malcolm, and Jim Shevok and Dan Norris.
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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time.