Magnificent mosses

Rock and roots are equally drapped in mosses © Clive Chatters

Mosses might not seem the most exciting of plants, perhaps associated with garden chores like raking them out of lawns or removing them from damp corners and gutters. But these plants are actually hugely important for all sorts of tiny creatures and they also help many habitats, particularly woodlands and bogs, to store much more carbon than they would otherwise.

Moss plants

Mosses are found all over the world in a huge array of habitats, from urban areas to the rainforest. They differ from most plants as they lack true roots, seeds and flowers. Instead, they produce spores in order to spread and have root-like structures called rhizoids which absorb nutrients and water wherever the moss is growing. These simple plants were some of the first to evolve, and botanists estimate that there are now over 12,000 species of moss in the world (760 in the UK). The main thing they require is moisture, allowing them to colonise so many different climates and habitats.

Miniature Habitats

Mosses are often the first plants to arrive on the scene in areas of bare, freshly cleared ground. They soak up a lot of moisture and can change the microclimate, making it more humid. This can make rocky areas or walls more habitable to other wildlife. Invertebrates like woodlice, slugs and snails need the damp conditions which can be created by mosses. These minibeasts are in turn food for various birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Carbon stores

Peatland bogs are some of our most important habitats when it comes to carbon sequestration or storage. But did you know these habitats are largely formed by the slow break down of a family of mosses known as sphagnum? Worldwide, peatlands store 550 gigatonnes of carbon - more than forests. When these habitats are unhealthy, they release carbon and cannot support their natural rich array of wildlife. To restore peatlands, you must first restore moss, planting it on bare and damaged ground and allowing other species to colonise later.

In addition to storing carbon, mosses can be used as indications for air quality. Like little sponges, mosses growing in urban areas or near roads can reveal a lot about the levels of pollution. The mosses obtain nutrients from the air, absorbing anything else present such as heavy metals and other chemicals. They also filter water and can stabilise the ground – that’s a lot of important functions for such little, overlooked plants!