The Magic of Moss
Moss is my favourite plant, and it is severely underrated. Subtle and serene, mosses enhance and accent the shape of the landscape and their surroundings in a unique and captivating way. Anyone can build a castle that looks old, but the mossy one is the real thing. Moss is an authenticator, a stamp of approval from mother nature herself.
Moss is not just a visual experience either, it has a unique tactile quality that I prefer to grass, which can be sharp, prickly, and even itchy! Moss, in humble contrast, offers a memory-foam like spring, a cushioning effect that makes one feel tranquil, and at home. Moss also has a wonderful smell to it. Because of it’s moisture regulating effect, it breathes life back into the air when it is dry, and gives off a petrichor adjacent mix of earth and wood tones. (Oakmoss is a commonly used fragrance additive, and smells of amber, wood, and musk, but is actually a lichen) Fragrance scientists have recently begun genetically engineering moss to produce more of a fragrance, with three varieties producing the scents of patchouli, geraniol (citronella and rose oil), and linalool (found in cinnamon, mint, and lavender).
Let me transport you to this bed of moss by a river nearby my house. The afternoon light streams in, shining glowing rods through the sparse winter tree line. The brook babbles, a hypnotizing and meditative rhythm that makes you untether your perception from the axis of time. You sit, and lean back, using your hands to prop yourself up. Your fingers sink in, creating plush, cool peninsulas of moss between them. You lay back, and feel yourself being cushioned by the plush bed of green, you breathe deep. It smells of freshness. You stay for you-don’t-know-how-long, rising up to see a faint depression left on the ground where you had been. A moss angel.
But perhaps you are unconvinced, maybe because you don’t value qualia, maybe because you don’t believe me about the joys of lounging on a mossy carpet. Then let me make another, more scientific argument for why you should love moss; it’s super useful!
Mosses, (Scientific name Bryophytes) are an integral part of our forests and ecosystems. They slow soil erosion by protecting the soil from wind and washout, without robbing the soil of nutrients, because mosses produce all their food via photosynthesis (Moss does not have roots, they instead have latching organs called rhizoids that do not absorb nutrients but only serve to hold the moss to the surface). This process is key to the conversion of barren or burnt land to a productive and full ecosystem, often called succession.
Moss also helps to regulate air moisture, soaking up humidity in the dewy morning hours and releasing it slowly over the course of the day. This effect is especially important in boreal forests, where thick layers of moss store enough water to ward off root damage due to forest fires, allowing for the quick recovery of burnt forests.
Peat Moss, (also known as Sphagnum) is a family of mosses famous for forming bogs and mires, that end up being important carbon sinks in the global ecosystem. It’s thought that in northern forests thick with healthy moss floors, the peat layer itself stores 2-5x more carbon than the trees do. In fact, GMO Sphagnum is being developed to allow slower peat decomposition in bogs, which may magnify this sequestering effect greatly.
Carbon isn’t the only thing moss bogs keep to themselves. Their anaerobic conditions have been responsible for some of the best preserved ancient human remains to date, including the Tollund Man, pictured below.
The more green thumbed of you might be familiar with peat moss, as it’s widely used as a soil conditioner in gardening, because it’s jam packed with nutrients and is incredibly absorbent (1kg of dry sphagnum can absorb 72-77 liters of water) .Mosses are also useful as “bio-indicators”, living signals of the health and well being of their environment. In areas with high levels of particulate pollution, only a small number of moss species can survive. If you see a diverse range of mosses, you can rest easy and breathe deep.
Our discovery of the rich world of moss is not simply the product of our modern world. In antiquity, it was common to use moss to insulate one’s house, it’s absorbency made it useful to waterproof pipes and boat hulls, and it’s antifungal and anti bacterial made it one of the best materials with which to diaper a child. In fact, mosses were commonly used as (relatively) sterile bandaging for this same property up until World War I.
I hope that in reading this post you’ve come to share my appreciation of moss for it’s beauty, as well as it’s utility. Please be on the lookout the next time you venture into the outdoors. Our bryophytic brethren represent a rich world, and tend to pleasantly reside in places as humble as the cracks in the sidewalk.
-Connor, Of All Trades
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