A Love Letter to Moss

Written by Alanna Burns, Illustration by Jaclyn Simon

“Mysterious and little-known organisms live within reach of where you sit. Splendor awaits in minute proportion.” – E.O. Wilson, Biologist.

I will start by saying that I am not a botanist, biologist or bryologist. I’m just a regular person, who loves plants and who really, really loves moss. That’s the terrific thing about plants. We don’t have to be scientists to fully appreciate them and all they have to offer. Buying a new house plant for your bedroom window can bring you an immeasurable amount of joy and a walk in the woods can calm even the most restless of minds. Plants are a balm to life’s stings and scrapes and bind us all together by being a critical component of our very survival. All plants are worthy of our attention and affect us all in one way or another. I am fascinated by all plants but moss has always fascinated me the most. 

To some, mosses are like set dressing. They blanket the ground and trees and if you live somewhere where there is a lot of it, it tends to just blend into the background. It’s such a common sight it’s natural to not give it much thought, but that would be a mistake. Often overlooked, mosses are one of the world’ most diverse plants. Small in stature and slow growing, bryophytes consist of nearly 15,000 – 25,000 different species, making them the second most diverse group of plants. An ancient plant, moss is said to have first appeared around 400 million years ago and is one of the first plant species to colonise the land. Mosses are non-flowering and rely on spores to ensure their survival. They grow very slowly and lack a root system, instead relying on root-like threads called rhizoids. This makes them surprisingly resilient to changes in temperature. When faced with extreme drought, mosses will dry out and go dormant, sometimes for years, until they have access to water again. This allows them to survive in the harshest conditions where most plants struggle. Sensitive to air pollution, the health of moss in an area is a reflection of air quality. Lots of moss growing on the trees in your neighbourhood? That’s a good sign. When the moss disappears, that’s when you should worry. Patches of moss resemble a tiny forest and are home to invertebrates like mites and springtails, small animals like mice and vole and amphibians. It’s its own world and it’s teeming with life. It’s mysterious in the same way that a vast forest is mysterious, you never know what you’ll find when you start exploring.

My love of moss began when I started going for walks in the forest. I live in Vancouver, British Columbia so it’s pretty rainy here a lot of the time and as a result, our forests are lush and green and are home to a variety of flora and fauna. Our rainforests are beautiful and will transport you, making you feel like you could be walking in a fantasy novel. You half-expect a wizard to pop out from behind a tree and ask you to go on a quest. Cat-tail moss (Isothecium myosuroides) hangs down from the branches of douglas fir trees and red roof moss (Ceratodon purpureus) perches on top of a rock with its perky (and sort of cute) stems reaching upwards. You run your hand along a patch of  broom moss (Dicranum scoparium) and take delight in its softness and wonder what it would be like to take a nap on it (probably very comfy). Moss invites you in to take a closer look and encourages you to slow down. By its very nature, moss is an example that good things take time to grow and remind you to not rush the journey. To spend time with moss is to spend time with yourself. It can be a very philosophical experience. 

Maybe this is what I love so much about moss. I admire its resilience and fortitude while trying to survive in a changing world. Much like people, moss can adapt to its ever-changing environment, a process that takes time and patience. Plants are the foundation of life on earth. If we all took more time to get to know them and understand them, maybe we would start to really appreciate just how precious life really is. So, the next time you’re outside, take a good look around. I bet you’ll find moss wherever you look, growing where you least expect it.