Nature Notes: Prehistoric Greenery

By Larry Penny
Mosses had their origin 500 million years ago and come in a vast variety. Carissa Katz

   It’s the middle of winter. Except for the greens of the conifers and some evergreen hardwoods, the trees are bare and the leaves that still cling to the lower branches are a drab brown.
    The lawns, whether covered with leaves or raked clean, are of an ecru hue at this time, with a few exceptions. There are some brilliantly green lawns, even in winter, and the greens come in a variety of tones, from very light to a brilliant lustrous green to a dark green that reflects little light.
    These green lawns are not composed of Kentucky bluegrass, commercial fescues, and clovers. In fact, you will rarely find a grass species or any forbs in this carpet of green. These lawns are composed entirely of plants that had their origins 500 million years ago and are still thriving today with no sign of petering out — mosses. They are almost ubiquitous throughout the world’s land areas with the exception of Antarctica.
    The beauty of a lawn composed of mosses is not merely that it is green in winter, but also that it requires very little attention — no fertilizing, watering, mowing, or weed removal. It does require the shade provided by hardwood trees in spring and summer, as well as the removal of the leaves after the drop in the fall. Moss lawns are not only attractive and practically care-free, they are also eco-friendly.
    Moss turfs do not make good athletic fields; they don’t take a lot of roughhousing. On the other hand you won’t look out your window on a moonlit night and find deer grazing on them. You don’t find many such moss lawns in the densely populated suburbs of western Suffolk County and Nassau County, but there are many on the South Fork, especially in the northern halves, say, in Northwest and Springs.
    Mosses are plants that presumptively gave rise to the higher plants, the ones with vascular systems. Since they don’t flower, produce edible fruit, or grow much taller than a few inches above the ground, they are nondescript to the human eye. They are so nondescript, in fact, that although they are all around us, they don’t have common names as all of our flowers, trees, shrubs, and, even, ferns do, at least in Western society. They are lumped into a few common categories such as “pin cushion moss,” “sphagnum,” and the like.
    They are “pioneer” plants in that they colonize bare ground, especially where it is partially shaded. Some moss species live on the trunks of living trees, some on old wood — dead trees, old sheds, and roofs. The reader would be hard pressed to find a field guide to mosses of the likes of those popular publications covering wildflowers, trees, birds, insects, amphibians, mammals, mushrooms, ferns, rocks, and minerals. My own field guide to the mosses is “Mosses of Eastern North America” consisting of two volumes totaling 1,328 pages authored by Howard Crum and Lewis Anderson in 1922. It’s not the kind of field guide that one carries around in a jacket pocket.
    On Saturday afternoon I took a walk with one of the few individuals on Long Island who knows mosses, Bill Miller, an arborist by profession, but a devoted aficionado of mosses and liverworts. He goes to Humboldt Institute in Maine every summer to study them. We started at the giant boulder west of Stony Hill Road up on the moraine in Noyac and wove our way through a mile or so of trail nicely maintained by the Southampton Trails Society.
    Everywhere one looked there were mountain laurels, oaks, red maples, and a few pitch pines, and not one bittersweet, mugwort, Japanese knotweed, Tartarian honeysuckle, or other invasive species. The entire area had been burned over in 1944 by a wildfire that also destroyed a Noyac house or two.
    It was not only mountain laurel heaven, but moss heaven, as well. Bill identified the mosses on the ground along the trail, explaining the niches preferred by each one, whether on the trail edge, a tree trunk, boulder, or other substrate. He knew the scientific name of each. The most plentiful moss was the one that ran along the shoulder of the trail for hundreds of yards. Bill told us that it was one of the mosses that reproduces vegetatively, the way phragmites, poison ivy, beech trees, and quaking aspens mostly do.
    Not all the mosses were green, some species were reddish, but all of them were active, photosynthesizing away in the cool afternoon air. Bill could recognize a species on a white oak tree bole by its color and growth form from a distance of several feet. Some of the mosses were shooting up fruiting bodies, little capsules supported by hair-thin stems with spores inside only an inch or so above the leafy base.
    At one high point along the trail, North Haven, Shelter Island, Jessup’s Neck, and Noyac Bay were all visible. I lamented the fact that I had lived less than a quarter of a mile from that trail since 1979 and had never been on it.
    When I caretook the late Ward Bennett’s house on the edge of Accabonac Harbor in Springs in the early 1980s, I helped Ward put in a moss lawn next to his garage. It was composed of squares of moss removed from under eastern red cedars on his property. The squares were fitted next to each other like the tiles of a bathroom floor. When weeding the moss lawn I would lay down a piece of plywood so that my knees didn’t make depressions in the soft turf.
    We ended up at Bill and his wife, Shirley’s, house up the hill from mine and were treated to their moss and fern garden incorporating a low stone wall around its periphery. When a few minutes later I pointed to a quite lovely moss lawn resplendent in the late afternoon sun just across the road from his house and asked, “How do you make a lawn like that?” Bill replied, “Benign neglect.” End of walk.