My Introduction to Mosses

I can’t claim my interest in mosses has been lifelong. For much of my life they have been part of the background, a homogenous mass known as ‘moss’ that is on my drive, on fences, on walls, on stones, carpets trees and soil in the woodlands, loves the damp sides of brooks, and, as I recently learned, is the keystone species of mosslands.

Only occasionally has an individual stepped forward, hummocky, or glistening, or coating the trees in fairy cloaks to make me cry out, “Look at that moss!” Still, it has remained “that moss”. The world of mosses, their individual identities, has remained one of mystery shrouded by difficult binomial names and minute identifying features, many of which require a microscope, all at least a decent hand lens.

My first introduction to identifying mosses and liverworts was a lab session at Manchester Metropolitan University with the Midland Bryophyte Group (MIDBRYG) in February 2020. There we had an introductory lecture on bryophytes followed by a practical workshop identifying them under the microscope. There I first got to grips with their structures and was helped to work through a key. I ‘met’ some intriguing bryophytes including Bog-moss Flapwort (Odontoschisma sphagni), a liverwort from Borth Bog.

I wanted to continue meeting up with the MIDBRYG group and learning about bryophytes but then covid hit. Lacking confidence I stuck with vascular plants for the next year or so.

Then, in February 2021, I started temporary work with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust contract team planting on the Manchester Mosslands. For the first time I was introduced to Sphagnum moss by the Beadamoss plugs containing 11 species of Sphagnum.

Once again they were just a homogenous mass until I started working on the Manchester Mosslands as a Greater Manchester Wetlands trainee. Slowly I began to learn the names of the Sphagnum mosses on Little Woolden Moss and Astley Moss – Sphagnum cuspidatum in the bog pools, the green, slightly weedy Sphagnum fimbriatum, the big, chunky hummock-forming species Sphagnum palustre and Sphagnum papillosum.

I began to understand the Sphagnum mosses and the differences between them on a deeper level when I did some training in Sphagnum identification with a microscope with Anna Keightley in October. Anna is a post-doctoral research associate at Manchester Metropolitan University and volunteers on the mosslands with the Sphagnum Squad. I first met her at the MIDBRYG lab session and the work she has done on the mosses and her publications* have been a huge inspiration since I started my job.

Anna taught me how to remove a few leaves from a Sphagnum plant and how to make a slide.

I learnt to differentiate between the large, hooded leaves of the chunkier species from Section Sphagnum (such as Sphagnum papillosum), the bent-at-a-90-degree angle leaves of the only Sphagnum in Section Squarrosa – Sphagnum squarrosum, the long, thin leaves of Section Cuspidata (such as Sphagnum cuspidatum) and the small, cute leaves of Section Acutifolia (such as Sphagnum capillifolium).

I also got to view the unique cell structure of Sphagnum, which has not only chlorophyllose cells containing chloroplasts for photosynthesis, but large empty hyaline cells, which allow it to absorb up to twenty times its body weight in water (thus maintaining the waterlogged conditions of a mossland).

Getting to grips with the Sphagnum mosses has inspired me to start learning about more of the 763 mosses in Britain, many of whom are on my doorstep, for the next post…

*Anna’s PhD thesis ‘Micropropagated Sphagnum introduction to a degraded lowland bog: photosynthesis, growth and carbon fluxes’ can be read HERE. The introduction she wrote to growing peatland plants whilst on placement with LWT inspired me to make this subject the focus of my personal project as a trainee.