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Home Garden When a moss is not really a moss

When a moss is not really a moss

Darren Strenge, Special to Kitsap Sun
Published 4:00 p.m. PT Jan. 9, 2019

Common names of plants can be deceptive. For most people, this is not really an issue, but for the few uptight, botanical know-it-alls among us, common names can be a little annoying. We find it vexing to explain that May Apple is not actually an apple tree (or even a tree), Norfolk Island Pine is not a pine tree, and Sago Palm is not a palm tree. 

The rest of you have to suffer through explanations of why Asparagus Fern is not actually a fern but is, in fact, an asparagus (but don’t eat it). Those really unfortunate souls may even have to endure a monologue on asparagus cultivation and why the asparagus you eat does not resemble your Asparagus Fern.

Prepare yourselves now for a lecture on why some plants commonly called mosses are not really true mosses. Bear in mind that these plants are still outstanding plants even though they are not mosses.

Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides), an epiphytic plant species known for festooning tree branches in the southern United States and further south, is not a moss. Rather, it is a flowering plant in the same botanical family as pineapple. While not hardy outdoors in our area, you can find relatives of it available for sale as small houseplants under the name “Air Plant.” They are frequently sold attached to a decorative piece of wood and make a nice addition to your kitchen window.

Irish Moss (Sagina subulata), is a low-growing plant with small, white flowers related to carnations. It is not a moss but certainly appears superficially moss-like. It is a nice ground cover for light shade around stepping stones or in pots. While you could use it in large areas, I personally prefer it as a “filler” plant to accent other specimens.

Club Mosses and Spike Mosses (Lycopodium, Huperzia, Selaginella and others) are the coolest of the moss impostors. All known species in existence today are low-growing herbaceous plants, but 300 million years ago, some species grew as large as trees. 

Likely your car’s gas tank contains the remains of some of these tree-sized “mosses” that made up a large part of the Carboniferous flora. If you were alive back when these species dominated, dinosaurs had not yet evolved but you would have had to contend with spiders the size of your head, dragonflies with 3-foot wingspans and 8-foot long centipedes.

Genetically, Club Mosses and Spike Mosses are not closely related to any major plant group still living today. Historically they have been called “Fern Allies,” implying a relation to true ferns. Although they reproduce by spores similar to ferns, modern DNA research has shown true ferns are more closely related to flowering plants than to Club and Spike Mosses. Those species surviving today are the remnants of a larger group of plants that has mostly gone extinct.

Several species are native to our area, but it may take much searching to find them. I consider it a great treasure when I find a Lycopodium growing on the forest floor or a Selaginella masquerading as a moss on a Bigleaf Maple. 

Club Mosses (Lycopodium and Huperzia) can be hard to find in nurseries, but some Spike Mosses are often available. Some are sold as houseplants, but you likely can find Selaginella kraussiana as a hardy groundcover for light shade, and I have found it for sale in Kitsap County. 

In a perfect world (designed by gardeners of course), common names would be as precise as scientific names and “non-mosses” would not be called “mosses.” On the other hand, from a bryophile’s (moss lover’s) point-of-view, referring to a plant as a “moss” is a form of high praise because, as we all know, mosses are the best plants ever! So this spring, go plant more moss or moss-like plants in your garden.

For an introduction to gardening with real mosses, the Master Gardener Foundation of Kitsap County is presenting the first of its seminar series on Thursday, Jan. 17. The subject is “Moss Gardening” and will cover the Bloedel Reserve moss garden and moss biology, garden design and propagation. As it happens, I will be the speaker, but please don’t let that stop you from attending. The seminar is from 1 to 3 p.m. in the first-floor meeting room of the Norm Dicks Government Building at 345 Sixth St. in Bremerton. Seminars are open to everyone, $5 at the door, and no reservations are required. Visit www.kitsapgardens.org for more information.

Darren spends his time at the Bloedel Reserve trying to get moss to grow on his head. When not getting paid to sit motionless under a tree, he can be reached at [email protected].

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