One of my favorite things about hiking during the winter is admiring the brilliant mosses along the trails and creeks. Perhaps because so many of the surrounding colors are grays and browns, the brilliant greens of the mosses seem to pop out and beg for admiration. Winter hikes give you the opportunity to appreciate the variety and beauty of these small non-vascular plants.
Patches of mosses are usually called “moss” by everyone except the scientists who specialize in these tiny beauties. Mosses produce spores for reproduction instead of seeds and they don’t grow flowers, wood or true roots. Learning to identify mosses takes patience and a good magnifying glass. My favorite guide book is a Trailside Guide to Mosses and Liverworts of the Cherokee National Forest by Paul G Davison.
Once you start looking for mosses you will be amazed at the different kinds that grown both in wet and dry areas. Hikers will discover that if you look closely along the edges of the streams and seeps there may be dozens of different mosses within a small area. You may, like me, find that you have favorites that you look forward to seeing every time you enter the forest.
Did you know that you can buy mosses and make a moss garden in your yard? Many places do not have enough sun or soil to support grass. Mosses have been used in Japanese water gardens for centuries. Moss can be purchased in flats or you can use small plugs. There are plant nurseries that specialist in mosses right here in Western North Carolina. Annie Martin’s book, The Magical World of Moss Gardening, is the best book for learning about growing mosses for yourself.
The moss you see in the picture is a species of Polytrichum. Polytrichum is a genus of mosses that are commonly called haircap moss or hair moss. I would have called them something like Emerald Star Moss, because the colonies of tiny plants remind me of carpets of green stars scattered along the forest floor. Polytrichum is one of the tallest mosses. It provides a solution to moisture control by holding the soil tightly in place. They send up slim hairs to disperse their spores. The hairs or “setae” start out bright green and then transition through yellow, orange and red colors. Even better and more remarkable, it grows in both sun and shade!
Polytrichum can be found throughout the world, but it is certainly one of the stars in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Bring your magnifying glass along on your next hike along the Loop trail and see what mosses you can find.