Moss keeps its secrets well. It seldom grows as separate plants, and because of its gregarious nature, individual plants lose their identity in the crowd. Consequently, we see only the green exposed surface of the mass and think it is all the same "ordinary moss." This green mass of plants we call "ordinary moss" is structured in one of two basic ways - as "mats," or as "turfs" or tufts. Mosses, unlike vascular plants, have no means to support their own weight more than a few centimeters off the ground. Hence some of them that are recumbent or creeping plants form
mats which are made up of horizontal layer upon layer, the older plants dying to form soil as the new green layers succeed them.
Or they are erect species, the plants supporting each other in varying degrees of density to form
turfs. Some assemble so loosely that leaves can grow freely along the entire stem, and individual plants can be easily isolated. Others grow so closely packed they become fused into one solid velvety cushion. Then it is almost impossible to break up the mass or to isolate individual plants. In these, only the terminal yearly growth may be green.
Nicholas Culpeper M.D., in his Complete Herbal divided mosses for medicinal purposes, both simply and unscientifically, into two categories: "Tree Moss" and "Ground Moss." This grouping, though logical in the sense of habitat, leaves nothing in common beyond that. The mat/turf distinction used above is not only just as simple, including all mosses, but is also a scientifically valid one, and a very useful way for the beginner to start observing mosses. The turfs are bryologically designated as
acrocarpi (acros - highest; karpos - fruit), and are distinguished by the sporophyte extending from the apex of the upright plant. The leaf of a turf moss almost always has a midrib.
Mats, on the other hand, are designated as pleurocarpi
(pleura - rib or side; karpos - fruit) and have the sporophyte extending (usually vertically) from the side of one of the branches of the prostrate plant. The leaves generally have no midribs, and those surrounding the base of the sporophyte are usually much elongated. This is the largest group of mosses and perhaps most difficult for the beginner to get sorted out.
One of the largest groups of the pleurocarpi are the Hypnaceae or Family of
Hypnum. This name is from a Greek work meaning "sleep." No one knows now what species of moss it originally referred to, but until fairly recently, the Family included most of the pleurocarpous mosses, and pillows were often stuffed with them in the belief they would induce sleep. Even now, the Family of
Hypnum still encompasses a good number of these recumbent mosses and a contemporary writer suggests it may have been this sleeping posture that first gave them the name,
Hypnum, the "sleeping moss." Without any intention of confusing the classification of
Hypnum, it might be useful to think of the pleurocarpi as "sleeping mosses."
The "crowds" of moss may all look alike on the surface, but there is plenty of variety and character in the separate plants that make up the mass. It is these individuals we look at for the factors that distinguish them as a species. Scientists have classified all forms of life into Orders, Families, Genera, and Species, and given them scientific names that are recognized internationally. But man throughout the ages has also given popular names to the things of nature that have meaning and recognition in his everyday life. Many of the more distinctive mosses do have common names. How few of us know and recognize them! Shaggy Moss, Broom Moss, Fern Moss, and Pincushion Moss are just a sampling to suggest what great finds await us.
Besides being small and unassuming, mosses are often difficult to identify accurately. In many cases this can only be done satisfactorily with the use of a microscope and by an experienced bryologist. But that doesn't mean we can't know the pleasure of getting acquainted with them. Any novice with an ordinary 10-power hand lens, or even by inverting binoculars, can quickly enter this little-known world of wonder we so blithely trample and ignore. By separating and studying only a few specimens of some of the many species, we soon realize how colourful and flamboyant are these shy forms of plant life.
It is above all this unexpected colour and flamboyance of mosses that makes them an exciting discovery. As an adventure in macro-photography, where I discovered them, mosses present a particular and never-ending challenge. But photography was only the beginning of what was to become a many-sided adventure. I soon branched out with pencil, pen and brush as well, and have also had many happy hours mounting mosses on folded sheets of fine paper.
My friends were soon collecting and sending or bringing samples from scattered parts of the province, the country, the continent, and the world. Every envelope brought a physical part of a place I had been unable to get to myself, and with it visions of woodland, shore, rocks and muskeg, more real and poignant than any travel literature could be. It is a world that has stretched afar, and rolls out magically every time I open my herbarium boxes with their endless variety of mosses.