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Identifying Four Basic Mosses

Moss trailside at Blair's Pond - Old County Road

To learn about the mosses can be a somewhat tricky process. Believe me, I should know. Moss can certainly be admired, enjoyed, and photographed without being an expert by any means. For me one of the biggest problems that I have had with trying to separate the moss species has been their very minute size. After all, I don’t carry a microscope into the field, and I don’t collect clumps of moss to bring back and identify either. I am not a moss expert by any stretch of the imagination. The true experts may identify as many as fifty species in our area. Hopefully using this article and your trusty 10x hand lens you can learn four basic mosses, making your hikes even that much more enjoyable.

Some basic terms:

  • Gametophyte- the green portion of a moss plant.

  • Sporophyte- threadlike structure that produces the reproductive spores.

  • Capsule-tiny container holding the actual dust-like spores.

  • Stalk (seta, filament)- supports the capsule.

  • Cap- some capsules have a distinctive lid and lid covering.

Gametophyte with Sporophyte

Mosses do not have flowers or seeds but reproduce by means of spores. Mosses are related to the Lycopodiums (see previous post of Dec. 17, ’21). The basic green plant of a terrestrial moss has a stem and leaves like higher plants, except they are so small. This green portion is called the gametophyte, a big term meaning the plant which contains the gametes or reproductive portions.

Additionally, at certain times of year hair-like filaments (seta) may appear at the tip of the stems each tipped with a tiny capsule. The capsule itself has additional parts that are used for identification. This is the sporophyte portion of the plant and the part that releases the spores. These dust-like spores are carried by wind, water, passing birds or animals to a new location where they grow forming a new colony.

Haircap Moss - powerlines
Haircap Moss - dry weather

The first moss species that I learned to identify and appreciate was the Haircap Moss. It is the tallest species of moss in our area. It can grow up to six inches tall in favorable situations. I used to collect a few individual plants and dry them for shrubbery on my model railroad. It grows in large patches on damp ground at the edges of forests, shaded wet roadsides, and in younger pine plantations. It is a cosmopolitan species found in spots on all the Nature Preserve lands. To my eyes the plants are a deep green with reddish tones at the stem’s base and are very soft, deep, and lush to the touch. Each individual leaf is long, narrow and toothed on their edges.

Haircap Moss - small group.
Haircap Moss - drought conditions

Many times the colony has numerous spore cases attached. If examined with your hand lens these capsules are four-angled and topped with a hairy cap. This falls off as the spores mature and may not still be present. Some nice clumps can be found under the powerlines behind the Nature Center and along the edges of the Lindale and Morton tracts.

A second unique appearing moss that is easily learned is the Pincushion Moss. It

has a distinctive texture and coloration.

Pincushion Moss - ideal conditions
Pincushion Moss - dry weather

As you are hiking our trails you might notice small pillowy clumps of smooth, almost like velvet-like moss with very pale gray-green coloration. During drier weather the chlorophyll green diminishes and the color fades to almost white, then becomes greener during rainy weather. Perhaps you are old enough to remember the velvet pin cushions of our parents’ generation, often a silver cup having a hemisphere of padded velvet in the center for holding sewing pins.

A Natural Pincushion
Natural Moss Garden on Pineknot

This lovely moss, which usually grows in small, dense clumps, is reminiscent of those pincushions. Pincushion moss grows on poor acid soil in shade or partial shade. The individual closely packed plants can be as much as 3 inches tall. The clumps are easily damaged by foot traffic and best enjoyed by photography. Often other species of greener moss grows intermixed with pincushion moss and creates a colorful, interesting pattern. Pincushion moss seldom produces sporophytes.

Pincushion Moss - old stump
Pincushion Moss with Haircap Moss

I’m sure if you keep your eyes open as you hike the Blair’s Pond 5K Trail you will see clumps of pincushion moss near the trailside. It grows on all the tracts near the Nature Center as well. Look for it on and around old stumps and logs. Speaking of another moss with unique coloration, Golden Foxtail Moss falls into that category.

Golden Foxtail Moss
Golden Foxtail Moss - detail

Whereas the pincushion moss has a very smooth, velvety surface appearance even upon close examination, foxtail moss has a ropey texture. Growing in large prostrate mats on poor soil the surface has a texture like lots of little cords all packed together. The individual stems look like a yellow-green version of “All Bran” cereal. Each stem is covered with tiny overlapping leaves. The usual coloration is pale yellow-green, but the tips may die with age and bleach out to a lighter hue. Sometimes the colonies are several square yards in area on barren soil, ditch banks, tree bases, etc. Other mosses and small flowering plants grow up through those mats. The stems are always trailing and never upright, distinctive from the pincushion moss. The sporophyte consists of a macaroni shaped capsule at the tip of a filament. Look for this moss on all of our


Golden Foxtail Moss - natural lawn
Golden Foxtail with sporophyte

Large colonies can be seen around the Lee Meadow and under the powerlines

behind the Nature Center. This is a universal, cosmopolitan moss that deserves

closer inspection with your hand lens.

I always save the best for last. I’m not exactly sure what year it was when I first

learned about Delicate Fern Moss, probably in the early 1950s.

Delicate Fern Moss - Tantrough Branch
Delicate Fern Moss - Tantrough Branch

I do remember the exact scenario and situation. My brother, David, four years my senior, was collecting as many varieties of moss as possible for a school science

display. We raided the trash pile and picked out many empty tuna cans, the low, squatty type. These were scrubbed and the labels removed and made the ideal container for moss specimens. In collecting the moss, the sample was cut out cookie cutter fashion for an exact fit into the pot. I think that he had a dozen different species, or more. I don’t remember what grade he got for that effort but to me it deserved an “A”. We located a patch of delicate fern moss on the sandy banks of Tantrough Branch at the base of a huge sweetgum tree. It was a new variety to me, and I spent many minutes marveling on its beauty. Although that was many years ago, I still admire its charm. Often it grows in association with other mosses on banks, rotting stumps and logs, and forest soil in shady, moist environments. The sporophyte stalks are rust colored and the capsule cylindrical, slightly curved, and sits horizontally. I don’t usually see the sporophytes, but large colonies often form at the base of trees and sometimes continue a foot, or more, up the trunk. Also, do not believe the old adage that moss grows on the north sides of trees. If conditions are correct, moss may grow on all sides of trees.

Delicate Fern Moss
Unidentified moss plus ear fungus

Many cultures are extremely fond of moss gardens. They do require a large amount of work to maintain. Japanese moss gardens are especially beautiful. You can look them up on the internet. Several State Parks in the Appalachian Mountains of western Maryland and West Virginia are noted for the moss-covered rocks.

Unidentified moss plus lichens
Fern Moss patterns

Locally, I have seen entire sandy hillsides covered with moss. Some in woodlands

along the Choptank River, in Maryland, and others near Middletown, Delaware. These are naturally occurring. These moss banks are not durable to foot traffic and seem to form where the slope and wind patterns are such to keep the autumn leaves from accumulating on them. If your yard is in deep shade, moss can be encouraged by not fertilizing, eliminating competing vegetation, and removing the autumn leaves promptly and gently with a leaf blower.

Moss along Tantrough Branch

Ken's Moss Trail

There are methods of growing your own moss garden, un-tested by me, using some moss clumps, buttermilk, and a blender. I think that proper site selection, preparation, and aftercare would be the most important parts of the process. Conversely, you can hike and enjoy the mosses on the Nature Preserve for free.

To begin, walk the boardwalk loop behind the Abbott’s Mill Nature Center and the Mill, (A.D.A. accessible).

There are also lots of great mosses at Blair’s Pond Woods along the 5K Trail.

Moss trailside at Blair's Pond - Old County Road

So, get out and enjoy the warmer weather and the great outdoors. See how

many interesting types you can locate and photograph. Happy Hiking !!!

Photos by the author.


Next week Steve will take a look at the old mills that were, and are, along the Isaacs Branch, just south of Dover.

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