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Nature Watch: Moss, the most primitive of plants, is quite hardy

In her graceful and engaging book, “Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses,” Robin Wall Kimmerer first warns us about what mosses are not: “The word ‘moss’ is commonly applied to plants which are not actually mosses. Reindeer ‘moss’ is a lichen, Spanish ‘moss’ is a flowering plant, sea ‘moss’ is an alga and club ‘moss’ is a lycophyte. So what is a moss? A true moss or bryophyte is the most primitive of land plants. Mosses are often described by what they lack, in comparison to the more familiar higher plants. They lack flowers, fruits and seeds and have no roots. They have no vascular system, no xylem and phloem to conduct water internally. They are the most simple of plants, and in their simplicity, elegant. With just a few rudimentary components of stem and leaf, evolution has produced some 22,000 species of moss worldwide. Each one is a variation on a theme, a unique creation designed for success in tiny niches in virtually every ecosystem.”

This book carries special meaning for me because I love mosses. And there is a story behind that comment.

Years ago, when I carried an additional 60 pounds of personal weight and was completely unprepared for the adventure, my brother and I set out to climb the Range Trail in the Adirondacks. Athletes hike this trail in one long day: we would do half of it in two. But even that would involve climbing over four major peaks and a long backtrack to Johns Brook Lodge.

My brother is a slow starter and he fiddled around our car at the Keene Valley trailhead for so long that I finally set out on my own. Even so, it was already almost noon when I started.

It was a hot summer day and only an hour up the trail I stopped to rest and satisfy my thirst only to find that I had forgotten my canteen. Oh well, I thought, Vern will surely bring water. But no such luck. Two hours later, when he caught up with me, he informed me that he thought I had the water.

We decided that it was too late to turn back, that perhaps we would find a spring later. But that, too, would not work out.

Skip to the next day when I felt as though I was in a desert. I was sopping wet with sweat but that was salt water. The only damp spot we had come across was a marshy seep that contained only mud. But as I made my way up a steep pitch on Armstrong Mountain, I came across a patch of moss. I put my hand on it and found it was wet. Here was my salvation. I set down my pack, took out the tin first-aid kit, emptied it and used it to catch the few drops of water I squeezed out of that moss.

I managed to gain only two or three teaspoons of brown water from my efforts, but that was the most refreshing water I have ever drunk. Just thinking about that treat carried me through the remainder of that punishing day.

So I do indeed have a soft spot in my heart for mosses. It doesn’t even matter that Kimmerer tells us, “One gram of moss from the forest floor, a piece about the size of a muffin, would harbor 150,000 protozoa, 132,000 tardigrades, 3,000 springtails, 800 rotifers, 500 nematodes, 400 mites, and 200 fly larvae.” I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time, but it only added a little protein to my drink.

It turns out that water is extremely important to mosses as well. They need moisture for photosynthesis to occur. “Lacking roots,” Kimmerer says, “mosses can’t replenish their supply of water from the soil, and survive only at the mercy of rainfall.”

Despite this dependence on water, however, mosses can recover from being almost completely dried out. According to Kimmerer, “Mosses may lose up to 98 percent of their moisture, and still survive to restore themselves when water is replenished. Even after 40 years of dehydration in a musty specimen cabinet, mosses have been fully revived after a dunk in a Petri dish.”

email: insrisg@buffalo.edu