World of Mosses website

Mosses in Your Wildflower Garden

by Robert Muma

from Wildflower magazine, Summer 1986 issue (Vol. 2, No. 3)

In coastal areas where there is constant humidity from fog, mist or rain, mosses can become pernicious weeds that must be kept under rigid surveillance and controlled with commercial moss killers. But this garden nightmare of the coast is the stuff of dreams for those of us who live in drier climates and want to grow mosses. We see mosses thriving in their woodland habitats and covet them for our own backyard enjoyment. We carefully collect some, plant them and lavish them with tender loving care - and then probably watch helplessly as they slowly die.

Mosses are extremely selective about their environment and are growing where you found them because all the circumstances were exactly right for them in that time and place. Moving them to another situation, no matter how seemingly identical, may jeopardize their welfare by lack of some quite obscure factor(s).

Fissidens taxifololius: A common moss found on north facing slopes and along stream banks. It has an extensive rhizoid system which makes it useful in preventing erosion and forming clods of earth for easy transplanting.
Next to lichens, mosses are probably the most environmentally sensitive group of living things, and many species no longer grow within our urban or industrial atmosphere. Thus it may be that it is not possible to successfully transplant mosses which are not already native to that locality. Some years ago I carefully planned and built a "natural" rock garden with a pool and circulation pump and surrounding shrubbery as a wildflower garden. Then about ten years ago when I became interested in mosses, I thought I had what would be an ideal moss garden as well. So I began planting samples of my collections as I brought them in. Throughout the summer I maintained 35 species in healthy condition. Only a third of these survived into the following spring however. And in 3 years scarcely half a dozen of them were still living. These half dozen were species quite common in the surrounding neighborhood anyway. Thus the cardinal rule for growing mosses (as with all wild plants) is to duplicate as nearly as possible, each species original habitat.

Transplanting mosses is quite a different matter from transplanting fibro-vascular plants. For the latter, we simply dig a hole, insert the root system and fill in firmly with earth. Mosses however have no root system to plant in the soil. They only have short hairy fibres known as rhizoids which serve as an anchoring system on whatever substratum is its natural habitat. Thus when you collect moss for transplanting you have only a thin sod held together by this network of filaments, and nothing to anchor it in place until it becomes weathered and wedded to the soil in its new location. Every gardener knows how notoriously curious squirrels are about anything newly planted, and loose moss becomes a convenient toy for them. Skunks and raccoons also, normally turn over every bit of moss they encounter for slugs or other life that may be underneath. Even small birds will soon scratch a loose patch of moss to bits. I found I had to make little cages of wire netting to place over newly planted moss until it had become a firm part of the new ecosystem. Another important precaution to this end is to pin the moss down using pieces of wire hooked at one end to hold the moss in place.

In places where mosses may become a threat to a healthy lawn, owners often resort to fertilizer to stimulate a more vigorous growth of grass, believing this may then crowd out the moss. On the contrary , just the opposite is apt to occur. Mosses need and thrive on phosphates, and soon take over completely. The Japanese have long been famous for their moss gardens covering large areas with a thick coat of moss of various species. I have conflicting word-of-mouth reports only, of how it is possible to create and maintain gardens like this, but anyone wishing to emulate their success might consider a phosphates-rich environment as a necessary part of success.

Tetraphis pellucida: A very common cushion moss covering old rotten logs and stumps in deep, shady, moist woods.
Equally important for successful moss culture are almost constant shade and plenty of moisture. Water them every day if possible. Mosses have no roots to take nourishment from the soil directly. They get their total nutrient requirements from the air and from minerals washed by rain from foliage overhead. Tap water with its chlorine content may mean a slow death for them. Tap water is also usually "hard" with a considerable calcium content. Some mosses known as calciphiles, grow in fens or filter the calcium from shallow mountain streams, building a cocoon of it from which they continue to emerge endlessly. After centuries, rock formed in this way becomes many meters deep. Non-calciphiles, on the other hand, after a summer of constant sprinkling with tap water, may develop a whitish deposit of calcium and gradually die. Rain water is best if it can be collected and saved for that purpose. Or let tap water sit in a sprinkling can for a few hours to dissipate the chlorine at least, before using. In any case, sprinkle through overhead foliage for greater nutritional value.

The growing season for mosses begins with the melting snow in spring and continues as long as there is adequate rain and the nights are cool. The heat and dryness of mid-summer constitutes a hiatus or rest period for most species which may appear to be dying. They revive quickly however with the return of rain and cool nights of early fall and thrive hardily until covered by snow for the winter. Spring and fall then, are the most appropriate times for collecting and transplanting mosses.


ACROCARPOUS MOSSES:  (a) Dicranum  (b) Funaria  (c) Bryum  (d) Mnium  (e) Rhodobryum

There are more than 450 different taxa of mosses found in Ontario representing 150 genera in 45 families. All of these can be sorted into just two easily recognized growth forms. These are (I) Acrocarpous mosses which are upright plants growing separately, or crowded together to form turfs or cushions, and (2) Pleurocarpous mosses which are creeping plants, lying flat on the substrata and forming mats. (See the author's A GRAPHIC GUIDE TO ONTARIO MOSSES on this website).

PLEUROCARPOUS MOSSES: (a) Hylocomium (b) Pleurozium (c) Thuidium (d) Brachythecium

All mosses are hygroscopic and able to store moisture in their stems and leaves. Acrocarpous mosses, because of their gregarious nature, form turfs or sponge-like cushions which increase their water storage capacity and give them an advantage for survival in periods of drought. Thus the species of this group should have a better chance of surviving transplant than plants which have only their individual storage potential. Pleurocarpous mosses absorb moisture from the soil, rotting wood, etc. on which they are growing. Some of this substratum should be an essential part of the transplant and the mosses should be covered loosely with leaves afterward to help prevent drying. Following is a list of common genera for each of these two groups which have representative species in almost all parts of eastern North America:




A Brachythecium species:
Brachythecium means "short capsule" which is characteristic of the many species in this genus which is also pleurocarpous.
  • Plenty of shade and moisture is the first essential.
  • make your garden as natural as possible. Ideally, it should contain a variety of soils as well as rotting wood, and a few rocks such as limestone and granite in separate areas.
  • Rocks, a board fence, or protective growth of some kind are necessary to shield them from drying winds.
  • Most important is the nature of the substratum from which the moss was collected: the soil and its pH factor; living or rotting wood; rock, acid, or alkaline. Transplant some of this substratum to blend into its new habitat.
  • Some mosses grow mainly in the shelter of one species of tree; others of another species. Still others favour the proximity of certain metal-bearing rocks. Putting your mosses in the wrong context may only provide them with a hasty demise.
  • Bryophytes, tiny treasures of the plant world. P.K. Armstrong. The Morton Arboretum Quarterly 17(2):17-30. 1981
  • Mastering the moss garden. J.L. Creech. The Mother Earth News. Special series #9. Spring. 1984.
  • Mosses of Eastern North America. H. Crum & L. Anderson. Columbia University Press. New York. (2 vol.). 1981
  • Mosses in landscape gardening. A.J. Grout. The Bryologist 34(5):64. 1931
  • Gardens: cloaked in moss. T. Heineken. Architectural Digest. Oct 1984. pp 162-166.
  • Checklist of the mosses of Ontario. R.R. Ireland & R.F. Cain. Pub. in Botany #5. National Museums of Canada. Ottawa. 1975. 67pp.
  • Checklist of the mosses of Canada. R.R. Ireland et al. National Museum of Natural Sciences, Ottawa. 1980. 75pp.
  • Mosses in Japanese gardens. Z. Iwatsuki & T. Kodama. Economic Botany 15:264-269. 1961
  • Bryophyte and lichen succession on decaying logs in eastern Canada. H. Muhle. PhD thesis. University of Ottawa. 1973. 241 pp.
  • A graphic guide to Ontario mosses. R. Muma. Toronto, Ontario. 1985. 28pp. (CLICK HERE)
  • A cryptogamic flora of Elgin County, Ontario. Part I. W.G. Stewart. Ontario Field Biologist. 30(2):17-41.
Robert Muma is a biological illustrator. bookbinder, leather craftsman, writer, gardener and photographer. He lives in Toronto, Ontario where he has a personal herbarium of over 2000 moss specimens from around the world.

The material on this page is copyright © by the original author/artist/photographer. This website is created, maintained & copyright © by Walter Muma
Please respect this copyright and ask permission before using or saving any of the content of this page for any purpose

Thank you for visiting!