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Mosses – unobtrusive and versatile

Mosses usually lead rather obscure and secretive lives, but they have a moment in the limelight in mid-winter, when they’re often used to decorate nativity scenes.  Although they are so tiny and delicate, mosses are varied and fascinating plants. In Germany alone, there are over 1000 different species of moss. Mosses date back around 400 million years when they developed from green algae living in the intertidal zone, the transition area between land and sea.

Mosses like it damp

Mosses are real survival artists. Some of them exist on extremely small amounts of nutrients and light and continue to photosynthesize even at very low temperatures. With their rootlike organs – called rhizoids –they can colonize extreme locations like bare rocks, tree bark, walls or roofs. The function of the rhizoids is really only to anchor the moss in place. Mosses take up water and nutrients over their whole surface, this means they are dependent on water in the environment, such as rainwater. If there is enough water available, mosses can take up and store huge amounts of it. That’s why you’ll usually find them growing in damp places, like woods and forests, moors or on the shadowy side of rocks and cliffs.

An important role for water retention in forests

Damp and shady deciduous and coniferous forests are very rich in moss species. You’ll find mosses even in dark stands of firs or in cave entrances. Liver mosses in particular are heavily dependent on a steady supply of water. That’s why you’ll find them in permanently wet places, for example close to waterfalls. Leaf mosses, by contrast, are tougher and they have the ability to dry out completely, shrivelling up until they are almost unrecognizable; but after a shower of rain they come back to life again. Because mosses are able to store large amounts of water, they play an important role in maintaining the water balance of forests and above all of moors. The peat mosses typical of upland moors store water like a giant sponge. They have layers of dead matter many metres thick which forms anaerobic peat, while the top layer that continues to grow.

important as bioindicators

Mosses are important bioindicators: they react quickly to pollutants in the water or air and are reliable indicators of acidity or alkalinity, because they depend on specific pH values. They react quickly to environmental changes. Mosses can be protected by maintaining or recreating the conditions they require to survive, by reducing pollutant load and through sustainable land use.


Source: Heike Stommel, Rainer Schretzmann, www.aid.de