Poulsbo, WA – I love walking January’s chilly forest. Winter solstice has quietly passed and the woodlands are resting before the coming burst of springtime growth. Bright orange jelly spot fungus dot the surfaces of wet stumps like little nightlights glowing in the dim winter light. Moss-draped trees have slipped their pointy toes into cozy thick green stockings and woodland plants are in various states of undress. I can almost hear them snoring.
A key player in this sleepy scene is one that never rests…water. It seems like we see it, feel it, smell it, taste it and hear it 24/7. From a single drip falling from a branch tip, to a curtain of fog moistening our faces to a seasonal stream rushing to find the sea, our awareness of water never lets up. Much of the forest needs a wet time of quiet rest to rejuvenate, but for mosses, this water-saturated season is their time to shine.
It’s easy to perceive mosses as forest background color and nothing more. The tallest moss around these parts stands a whopping 4 inches tall and the smallest can’t be seen without magnification. Some are like little spongy pin cushions and others grow flat as if they want to remain anonymous. The combination of their size, winter growth patterns, primitive anatomy and lack of flaming color or culinary use keep them out of the spotlight. Of the 12,000+ species of mosses worldwide, very few even have a common name. Why bother?
Mosses are a member of the plant kingdom, but confusion sets in when we learn that they are flowerless, seedless and have no true leaves, stems or roots. They have leaf-like, stem-like and root-like structures and reproduce by lifting spores above their heads to be carried away on the wind. Unlike the towering trees on which they grow, mosses are completely dependent on the micro movement of wind and water to get anything done. Their primitive structures teeter precariously between supple expansion and shrinking compression with every rain cycle.
Mosses bring incredible beauty and function to the forest. Just ask anyone who has taken a walk in the winter forest and seen a textured canvas covered with 1,000 shades of green. Ask the mighty big leaf maple whose limbs grow heavy with the special spongy “soil” created by the presence of mosses. The tree branch sends out tiny aerial roots to soak up elevated moisture and nutrients. Ask the organisms who live in the soil who enjoy generous protection from sun, wind and water erosion. Ask the chubby water bear, a microscopic animal that lives in mosses. They will all tell you that mosses matter.
Like every other facet of the natural world, I am learning that I have barely scratched the surface of knowing and understanding mosses. I am solidly in the wonder stage, a time to just marvel at the beauty, variety and tenacity of these little plants. I long to know them, to name them and to listen to their age-old stories. How do they fit into the grand scheme of things? How do they benefit others in their forest neighborhoods and what dangers do they face?
The answers may take time to answer. For now, I’ll keep walking the winter forest with eyes full of wonder.
Cultivate Wonder… Discover Design
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