Omen of a Mossy and Spidery New Year

Yesterday I went for a New Year’s Eve walk with a friend around Longton Brickcroft Nature Reserve. The first thing I saw, on the gate on the way on in, was a small patch of moss with a tiny spider stringing a thread between the sporophytes. I think the moss is Creeping feather-moss (Amblystegium Serpens), but I’m not sure about the spider. The presence of palps shows its a male and I suspect it belongs to the Linyphiidae ‘Money Spiders’, likely one of the species impossible to identify without a microscope.

It felt like an omen of a mossy and spidery New Year.

A Mossy Holiday

A two week holiday has given me the chance to start exploring and recording the mosses and liverworts in my local area. Equipped with a x 10 hand lens and the FSC Field Guides to common species in woodlands and gardens, backed up by the British Bryological Society’s Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland a Field Guide, I have made some interesting discoveries and managed to identify more bryophytes than hoped.

I started with my garden and firstly discovered that the moss which is everywhere is Rough-stalked feather-moss (Brachythecium rutabulum) in various stages of growth. It came as no little surprise that Springy turf-moss (Rhytiadelphus squarrosus) is in my lawn. I was excited to find the unmistakable Big-shaggy-moss (Rhytiadelphus triquestrus) on a stony area. The fourth moss, growing in a damp area beneath the shed (which is not on the FSC Field Guides, but I have identified from the key in the BBS Field Guide by its capsules) is Clustered feather-moss (Rhynchostegium confertum).

In Greencroft Valley the most abundant species of moss is Common feather-moss (Kindbergia praelonga). My guess is the acrocarpous moss covering two Elders and seen on the trunks of other trees may be Common smoothcap (Atricham undulatum).

Beside the brook I spotted Common pocket-moss (Fissidens taxifolius) alongside some fascinating plants I cannot name.

I then decided to go to Castle Hill as some of the woodland on its banks is ancient. By the steps up the hill from Well Field, past where St Mary’s Well once was, I found more Common pocket-moss, and Cypress-leaved plait-moss (Hypnum cuppreseforme) on a fallen branch.

On the wall on Church Avenue and on the old stone cross halfway down was the evocatively named Grey-cushioned grimmia (Grimmia pulvinata). It is named after a German scientist called Johann Friedrich Carl Grimm yet, to me, the name ‘grimmia’ is particularly evocative of this unmistakable mossy creature. By this point I had started getting to grips with taking photos through my hand lens.

On a stone on the side of Church Avenue was this unidentified acrocarpous moss.

In Church Wood the most abundant moss was Common feather-moss (here with capsules present).

Another unidentified moss was found on the pathway on the fallen branch of a tree.

Although I didn’t identify as many different mosses as I had hoped to in Church Wood it was a treat to find Great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum) on a damp bank.

So far I have been delighted to discover so many mosses within walking distance of my home in a couple of days. I am planning to continue to explore and record the bryophytes of my local area and on the Manchester Mosslands in the New Year.

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.

On Learning Mosses

If I could learn
every species of moss
In Britain I would know 763 names.

A bardic task and a half and did those old bards
know the distinct differences between
the acrocarps and pleurocarps,

let alone the Andreales, the Bryales,
the Dicranales, the Grimmiales, the Hypnales,
the Orthotricales and Polytrichales?

We will never know how they named
the mosses and how they remembered them

but might imagine that they asked bardic questions

like “name the three pocket mosses in my pocket”:

Fissidens viridulus ‘Green pocket-moss’
Fissidens pusillus ‘Petty pocket-moss’
Fissidens bryoides ‘Lesser pocket-moss’

and “name the three beard mosses that grow in my beard”:

Bryoerythrophyllum recurvirostrum ‘Red beard-moss’
Bryoerythrophyllum ferruginascens ‘Rufous beard-moss’
Pseudocrossidium revolutum ‘Revolute beard-moss’

and “name three mosses that have swan’s necks”:

Campylopus flexuosus ‘Rusty swan-neck moss’
Campylopus fragilis ‘Brittle swan-neck moss’
Campylopus setifolius ‘Silky swan-neck moss’

and “name three mosses that look like feathers”:

Kindbergia praelonga ‘Common feather-moss’
Bracythecium rutabulum ‘Rough-stalked feather-moss’
Brathythecium velutinum ‘Velvet feather-moss’.

Of course we know they did not use binomial names,

that the coming of the Romans was the death of the druids
if not of the bards, who lived on to learn Latin, Greek,
survived the Anglo-Saxons to learn the meaning
of grimm, if not of Johann Friedrich Carl Grimm and Grimmia:

Grimmia laevigata
‘Hoary grimmia’
Grimmia pulvinata ‘Grey-cushioned grimmia’
Grimmia decipiens ‘Great grimmia’.

Somewhere between these names

the magic is coming back – I can feel it
whenever a word and a moss I have found connect.
My field guide is like some archaic text.

‘Pleurocarps with straight, nerved leaves

Rhychonstegiella, Rhychostegium,
Brachythecium, Eurynchium, Homalothecium

Pleurocarps with curved, nerved leaves

Scorpidium, Craetoneuron filicinum

charming me like some ancient spell,
leading me onward on my quest.