Bryophytes are non-vascular plants that include mosses, liverworts, and hornworts. They create tiny but intricate and extensive landscapes that play an important role in regulating ecosystems.

by Sandy Garland, with thanks to Lynn Ovenden for providing scientific names, Diane Lepage for the photos of Broom Moss and Silvery Moss

When the OFNC announced a currently rare in-person excursion, led by bryophyte expert, Jennifer Doubt (a scientist with the Canadian Museum of Nature), I jumped at the chance to get outside with fellow members and learn more about this fascinating group of plants.

As Jennifer pointed out, late fall is a great time of year to look at bryophytes, as the leaves of other plants fall and reveal these still-thriving, low-growing species. They can be found in most natural areas, but for today’s walk, we met at parking lot P6 in Stony Swamp. This site includes wet and dry forest as well as an alvar, so we hoped to see a wide variety of species.

We learned that it’s important to look closely at mosses and it’s okay to pick up a small piece so as to use a hand lens. Be sure to tuck the piece back into its location, but it will survive the trauma. If you are submitting photos to iNaturalist, take one of the habitat, then one of the whole clump of moss, then a few of leaves and capsules – as close as you can get.

Bryophytes have no vascular system. Water and nutrients are absorbed by every cell and can’t be transferred over any distance. However, scientists are looking at associations and connections of bryophytes with fungi and other organisms.

Here’s a glimpse at some of the species we found during our walk.

Banner photo above: Fire Moss (Ceratodon purpureum), the “cushions” with fine leaves, and Sidewalk Screw Moss (Syntrichia ruralis).

Most of the mosses we looked at were growing on the ground.

Haircap Moss (Polytrichum) is a good example of ground-growing moss. We saw several species – distinguished by their capsule and leaf characteristics. Jennifer told us that the name comes from the fuzzy pointed coverings that form on the developing capsule, resembling a pointed toque. We didn’t see caps, but this family of mosses is quite easy to identify as it looks like a mass of little stars.

Some mosses grow on trees or tree stumps, often low down where the air is humid. They can also be found on downed tree trunks and branches along with lichen and fungi.

Pocket Moss (Fissidens) may be found on tree stumps, but it also grows on rocks and soil

Some mosses grow in very wet areas.

The moss that’s most prominent in the previous photo is Philonotis, which is hydrophobic. You can see water beading on its leaves. Barely visible in the photo (upper right) are its red stems.

And mosses grow on rocks. This area included a small alvar, where we found Fire Moss (Ceratodon purpureum) and Silver Moss (Bryum argenteum).

A closer look at Silver Moss (Bryum argenteum), a compact moss that is very common in urban areas. The silvery colour is a result of the clear-translucent upper third of its leaves. Photo by Diane Lepage.

Fire Moss growing in a rock cavity along with some small shoots of Hedwig’s Moss (Hedwigia ciliata).

This one’s called a Tree Moss (Climacium) – not because it grows on trees, but because it looks like one, with it bare “trunk” and “branches” at the top.

We found several species of Broom Moss (Dicranum), like this large one – so called because the leaves bend to the side like an old broom or the way a carpet looks when swept with a stiff broom. Photo by Diane Lepage.

A close look at mosses reveals their intricate and distinctive patterns. Serrated leaf edges or the shape of capsules (upright, hooked, capped) can often pin down the species name.

A hand lens can be useful for distinguishing one moss from another. This photo shows at least two species, only one of which (a Haircap) has capsules.

This one’s not a moss at all. It’s a liverwort, also included in the bryophyte division of non-vascular plants.

I had to include this one because of its name – Electrified Cat (Rhytidiadelphus)!

Jennifer Doubt very kindly made some corrections and additions to some of the information here. She also sent along a colourful and useful Canadian Museum of Nature handout for exploring mosses further. MOSSES