In primeval moss, a gamut of greens

Woonsocket Call - - GREEN THUMB - By ADRIAN HIG­GINS

Re­cently I cra­dled a brown, wiz­ened and life­less stem of a plant in my hand and waited for Linda Davis.

She ar­rived bear­ing a wa­ter drop­per and some words of ad­vice: Have your mag­ni­fy­ing glass ready “or you may miss it.”

Once soaked, and within a few sec­onds, the tiny whorls of brown fur turned green and un­furled like a fern greet­ing the spring, only in a flash and in minia­ture. This mir­a­cle plant was merely a com­mon moss named atrichum. Mosses are one of Earth’s primeval plants, and to see this scant ex­am­ple dance back from the dead was strangely af­fect­ing, as if I were hold­ing a 450-mil­lion-year-old life force in my hand – which I was.

Per­haps this is why moss gar­dens can be so sub­limely med­i­ta­tive, some­thing Ja­panese gar­den­ers fig­ured out a long time ago. Moss gar­dens here are rarer, and it takes ef­fort and care to keep them look­ing good. Look­ing good for us, that is. Mosses don’t care to be or­na­men­tal (though they are). They just want to find their niche and grow and re­pro­duce. This is why you find some in the cracks in the city side­walk, on de­cay­ing logs in wood­lands, on stone walls and amid fail­ing lawns. It is this last as­pect that has given them an un­fair rep­u­ta­tion as un­de­sir­able in­vaders. Maybe it’s the lawn that needs to go. But to value mosses in the land­scape, it is es­sen­tial to greet them at their level, through the lens of a botanist.

This is why I joined more than half a dozen other cu­ri­ous souls late last month for a moss work­shop given by Davis and her hus­band, Char­lie Davis, nat­u­ral­ists with the Nat­u­ral His­tory So­ci­ety of Mary­land, at Ben­jamin Ban­neker Historical Park and Mu­seum in Ca­tonsville. Char­lie stayed in­doors with sea­soned moss devo­tees, seek­ing to iden­tify species with dis­sect­ing tools and mi­cro­scopes. Linda took five of us moss new­bies out­doors, around an old house that func­tions as a meet­ing place, prov­ing that you don’t have to go deep into the woods to find sev­eral species of moss. You need only find a leak­ing gut­ter or a drip­ping faucet.

On the porch, she told us that mosses are not like other plants; they have no in­te­rior plumb­ing that con­nects the leaves to the roots, and as non­va­s­cu­lar plants they share (and dom­i­nate) a plant niche called the bryophytes. The

oth­ers are the horn­worts and liv­er­worts, not to be con­fused with Hog­warts and liv­er­wurst.

“These guys are not suck­ing wa­ter,” she told us, “and yet their whole life his­tory de­pends on wa­ter.”

With­out xylem and phloem and with paper-thin leaves, mosses rely on di­rect con­tact with wa­ter to stay hy­drated and nour­ished and to re­pro­duce; male and fe­male parts are sep­a­rate, and the sperm – not pollen – needs wa­ter to swim to its tar­get. The moss then pro­duces a cap­sule-bear­ing stalk – a sporo­phyte – and the cap­sule con­tains spores, not seeds, which are so light and tiny that they can find their way to the jet stream and mi­grate around the globe. There are no roots, but they have an­chor­ing struc­tures called rhi­zoids, which can reach down a few inches. The leaves con­tain a nat­u­ral an­tifreeze agent, and mosses are among the few ground-hug­ging plants that stay green through the win­ter. They have com­pounds that make them un­palat­able to pests and dis­eases, and thus stay clean and un­eaten. They trap wa­ter and pol­lu­tants, they con­trol ero­sion, they grow where other plants fear to tread. Who could call such a plant a weed?

Af­ter tak­ing the monthly class, I couldn’t walk any­where with­out see­ing mosses and notic­ing the dif­fer­ences in size, habit, col­ors and sporo­phytes be­tween species.

Mosses are all around us, but what of their con­sid­ered use in the gar­den? I have a few thoughts: Start small and find ground that un­du­lates; moss is so low-grow­ing that it can look less in­ter­est­ing on a flat area. As with any other gar­den plant, con­text is ev­ery­thing, and your moss patch should be framed in some fash­ion and planted with other sym­pa­thetic flora for tex­tu­ral con­trast. But it must be in scale; asarums, foam­flow­ers, snow­drops, ferns, mondo grass, creep­ing phlox, sedges and even dwarf aza­leas would make good part­ners.

Sur­pris­ingly, per­haps, moss gar­dens are not with­out main­te­nance needs. (No wor­thy gar­dens are.) Patches must be kept free of leaf lit­ter and other de­bris and must be weeded. One imag­ines a Bud­dhist monk on his hands and knees with a hand brush and tweez­ers, which, come to think of it, would beat a lot of other do­mes­tic chores.

I asked moss ex­pert An­nie Martin what would be the wa­ter­ing reg­i­men if moss were to re­main green and hand­some in a non-mon­soon year. Three times a day, she said, but for no more than three min­utes a spray­ing. “If you can only do it once, choose late af­ter­noon,” she said. Even that seems oner­ous, but as she said, “it’s way less wa­ter than peo­ple use for lawns.”

We think of mosses grow­ing in shade gar­dens on acidic soil – some mosses take deep shade and are per­fect for ar­eas where lit­tle else wants to grow – but some species will grow in full sun and oth­ers on limey soil. The key is to find the right one.

Wash­ing­ton Post photo by Adrian Hig­gins

Moss can grow on live trees with­out harm­ing them.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.