Review: Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians

As I sit at my desk on a very rainy Syracuse morning, I’m beginning to feel excited – and impatient – about spring migration. It has started right? I don’t have to worry about the 6 inches of snow I saw in a New York fen on Thursday to convince me otherwise, right? Right?

If you’re feeling this same impatience (and I hope you are), have no fear. I am about to bring you a good distraction until more feathers show up on the landscape.

Eastern Phoebe nest (photo from Wikipedia)

Eastern Phoebe nest (photo from Rolypolyman at Wikipedia)

This is a bird photo, a common component of a Nemesis Bird post. But let’s  – just for a few minutes – call this a moss photo, instead. (See the moss? Just keep reading, I promise I’ll add some more bird stuff at the end.)

Mosses are primitive plants that mark a linkage of sorts between water-bound algae and “higher” terrestrial plants like grasses and trees. They’re considered ancient and primitive because they never really gave up dependence on a watery surrounding, but they’ve come up with some elegant adaptations to achieve success on land. Think of them as the amphibians of the plant world.

To be honest, I’ve become somewhat enamored with them since I was assigned as a teaching assistant to a moss ecology class this semester. And since early spring (read: before most migrants start showing up) basically marks the peak of their happy greenness, this is an excellent time to go moss-hunting. I’d like to propose that some antsy birders use this pre-spring migration emptiness to go notice some moss. And before you head outside to look for some delightful tufts, perhaps you should check out this book:


The book was just released this year, and is one of the only moss field guides that you’ll find. (So you won’t be able to build a collection of moss books to rival your bird books.) There are a few reasons for this: they’re really small, there aren’t many people who study them, and – most importantly – they’re often a pain in the arse to identify, which brings me to the book review.

The authors of Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians set out on a hugely challenging task: guiding the lay botanist to the identification of mosses in the field, with only a hand lens. To be fair, there are some major advantages to hand lenses. First, a satisfactory one can be purchased for under $10 – a much smaller investment than those Swarovskis you’ve been eyeing. And they weigh about the same as a wood thrush (which is not very much), so they’re not nearly as heavy as binoculars feel after a long day of hanging around your neck. And of course, they let you see cute tiny things.

Unfortunately, moss leaves are exceptionally tiny, so even the best hand lens can’t show you everything. In fact, if you really want to identify a moss to the species level, it’s best to use a microscope so that you can see cellular structures. And let’s be honest, ain’t nobody got time for that. (The birds are a-comin’, folks!) So we’ve established that perhaps a field guide for mosses is mostly just that – a guide.

To be fair, the authors do a really, really good job on briefing the user on basic moss morphology and how it can be used to get started in identification. They provide an excellent intro section describing life history, basic taxonomy, and the major ecological roles of mosses. The species pages are grouped by similarities and laid out well; photos, sketches, and high-magnification images on the left, and morphology, habitat, similar species, and important microscopic features listed on the right. They also provide a dichotomous key at the end if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, and – one of my favorite features – a list of probable species by habitat type.

But after two months of use, I’m still not sure that a moss field guide is a watertight concept. It’s informative, detailed, and will probably give you a list of “maybes” if you end up trying to identify something. This is an exciting accomplishment – and a useful parlor trick – but if you really want to go deeper, you’re going to have to suck it up and use a microscope and a 10-pound dichotomous key. (Have I convinced you to become a bryologist yet? If so, I’m looking for a summer field assistant. Kidding. Sort of.)

On that note, I’ll leave you with a list of fun moss facts. Maybe they’ll convince you to pay some more attention to these adorable, ecologically important plants.

  • Some bird species use mosses in their nest. Since most mosses are antimicrobial, this is a helpful mechanism in preventing diseased chicks. In fact, there seems to be a positive correlation between those birds that don’t clean out their nests regularly and the use of mosses as a nest component.
  • Though mosses are dependent on being wet to photosynthesize and reproduce, most can remain in a state of suspended animation if they dry out. When I’m prepping for moss lab, I grab our brown-ish moss specimens out of their ziploc bags, put them in a bowl and sprinkle them with water. In 5 minutes they’re green and happy again.
  • Marbled murrelets (an endangered seabird from the Pacific Northwest) nest miles away from the ocean in the blankets of moss found on branches of old-growth forest trees.
  • Since mosses are “non-vascular”, they don’t depend on roots in soil to obtain water. This means that some can be “flipped over”, and they’ll grow new shoots on their new “top.” This often happens in nature to those mosses that grow in a pincushion-like form, and when they get flipped, they create little balls of moss. In particularly windy climates, these moss balls can roll around, happily distributing spores and plant parts to grow new baby moss cushions.
  • Sphagnum, a large genus also known as “peat moss,” takes up approximately 1% of Earth’s land surface and makes up almost 2% of Earth’s plant biomass. That’s one genus of moss, for peat’s sake. (Sorry, I had to.)
  • Water bears (tiny water-loving invertebrates) prefer to live in moss. Like mosses, they have to adapt to sudden dry periods, so they simply shrink into little packages called “tuns”. When re-wetted, they expand (like those cool magic sponge capsules) and start wandering around their little moss-forest again. Seriously, go find pictures, they’re the cutest invertebrate I’ve ever seen.

Happy mossing!


Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Princeton University Press. But the moss love is all my own.