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  • Helen Kohl

Meeting the Mosses

In March, the Parry Sound Nature Club welcomed Dr. Jennifer Doubt, Curator of Botany at the Canadian Museum of Nature’s National Herbarium of Canada, to share her presentation “Meet the Mosses”. To discover Ontario’s mosses, liverworts and hornworts, she suggests there is no better way than to literally get down to earth! From kids to seniors, from novices to moss curators, she encouraged everyone to grab a magnifying lens and get close and personal to these tiny plants where they grow - the forest floor, rocky outcrops, on tree bark.

How are mosses distinguished from other plants? It might be easier to consider what is not a moss.

If a plant has roots to hold it down or to transport water and nutrition from the soil, it is not a moss. Mosses use rhizoids—thousands of spongy one-cell-thick strands—to attach themselves to the soil, bark, or other substrate. Mosses also derive their nutrition by sucking in water through their stems and leaves and through photosynthesis.

If you're looking at something that is any colour but green, it’s likely a species of lichen or fungi, but not a moss.

If its leaves are tidily arranged in rows, it’s likely liverwort, not a species of moss.

Finally, if it has flowers or reproduces with pollen, it’s not a moss. Mosses top their tiny stems and leaves with “capsules” that look similar to flowers. These capsules hold and release spores, which grow into moss.

In addition to spores, moss can grow anew from individual cells. If you grind moss up, each fragment could grow into a clone of the original plant. Or if you walk out of a forest with bits of moss on your shoes, each moss cell has the potential to grow into a plant.

Moss fragments can even reproduce after drying out completely or freezing. Rainwater revitalizes dried out moss every year, and 400-year-old fragments of moss frozen into glaciers can grow once they’re defrosted.

“Moss provides us with all the benefits of other plants”, said Dr. Doubt, “including providing shelter and food for animals, holding the soil together, filtering water, and providing an environment for other plants and animals to live.”

Sphagnum moss—a type of moss that grows in Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe and elsewhere—sucks in so much water and proliferates so extensively that dead and partially decomposed peat can accumulate underneath it for thousands of years. It’s an amazing preservative for ancient life because of the low temperature below the surface. And let’s not forget its distinctive taste in scotch whiskey. Peat is also commonly used as a fertilizer in the gardening industry, and while its use in retaining water in our gardens can be helpful, it’s important to remember that these peatlands are important habitats and a finite resource.

Thanks to Dr. Jennifer Doubt, who shared her extensive knowledge about mosses and about how to distinguish one moss from another!

The Parry Sound Nature Club is a small group of people coming together to learn about and celebrate nature. Effective April 2023, the Nature Club returns to in-person presentations and other events at Parry Sound’s Mary St. Centre. The next monthly meeting of the Parry Sound Nature Club: Paul Heydon explains why and how to garden with native plants on April 21 at 7:00 p.m. Learn more about the Parry Sound Nature Club and become a member at


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