Ep.6 Mystical Moss

Written by on January 31, 2022

Tree of the Week: Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla)

Canadian Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) branches with seed cones.

This tree is abundant in the coastal and cascade range and becomes even more abundant as you make your way north into Washington and Canada. They can grow up to 165 to 200 feet tall and have a characteristic droopy top. You can usually identify it by its droopy top or its short blunt needles that start uniformly close to the trunk and become a mess of needles towards the tip. The needles make a tea that is good for you but does taste pretty bad.

The Western Hemlock is shade resistant meaning it can grow in the low light conditions underneath a canopy of larger trees. This allows them to better compete for space in the forest. What it also means is that they can grow closer together, especially saplings. Hemlock seeds will take root quickly and will pop up often very close to each other. A couple of fun facts about hemlocks are that they are some of the best pulpwood and a lot of paper you use is made of hemlock pulp. Also if you play basketball or other sports in the gym it’s also likely to be hemlock would due to its resistance and the fact that it does get harder with age (it is a softwood). Keep an eye out for these beautiful trees in the forest!

A closer look at the mini forest you can find in moss

living in the boundary layer where air and land meet a complex system of moss exists in nearly every ecosystem on the planet. This small planet exists around the world in the shape of roughly 22,000 different species. This unique organism is the champion of adapting and ”masters of their chosen environment”. What at first glance seems like a simple backdrop to the complex environment of the forest, it turns out the complexity of the moss is most closely matched with that of a mesmerizing field of snow. Similar to the array of geometric shapes and edges of a snowflake disappearing into the white blanket of snow, examining the complexity of mosses opens our eyes to an entirely new dimension of the forest. That bleak green wallpaper suddenly explodes with new species and habitats hidden beneath every step 

The first thing anyone may point out is how small or short moss is, second how green it may be. Usually, that’s where the discussion ends as it is the only observation one could make without getting down on her hands and knees. However taking the time to examine a mossy rock, or the cushioned forest floor will leave you in a state of wonder and bewilderment. Moss is the perfect teacher of simplicity. Opening up before your eyes is what seems like a miniature forest. Unlike the trees around them, they are not able to support any growth higher than a few cm tall. This is due to a lack of vascular tissue which builds up their woody and flowering neighbors. Most other plants have a system of tubes called xylem that moves water from the roots to the leaves and back again (you can learn more about that by listening to ep.1 “a perplexing mystery”). Without this tissue, there is no structure to facilitate any upward growth. They also have no roots, instead, they have small hairlike structures called rhizoids. What this means is that mosses can’t suck up many nutrients and also can’t transport any water. The way mosses are so enduring is their sponge-like nature. A moss can absorb moisture straight from the air. You can always tell how much moisture is in the air by how squishy the moss is. 

Even more amazing is the moss’s ability to grow on seemingly every surface you look at. Any surface exposed to air is a free game for mosses to grow, and they make the most of it. Whether it’s on a log, trunk, rock, or sidewalk crack, you’ll come to understand how adaptable moss is to its environment. The only exception is salty surfaces. You won’t see moss in the ocean or anywhere the ocean water sprays. Moss, however, is even found in deserts living off of the small droplets of morning dew. Multiple species of mosses not only inhabit different continents but can crowd a Boulder face with so many different shades of green that it becomes impossible to even see the stone. When observed closely the shade of green isn’t the only difference. One moss is as different from the next, as an oak tree is from a pine tree. On one Boulder there could be 10 different patches of moss *gathering moss pg 15, P1*. Boulders and bark in the hot deserts will have black crusty moss on them that at first glance appears dead. However, that’s far from the case. One rainfall and within minutes the moss is back up in a lively looking manner absorbing all the water it can handle. Living from rain to rain doesn’t bother these species since they can just cover themselves in a homemade sunscreen to protect from the what and just wait it out.

A fallen tree covered in moss

When I said mini-forest it is very much that, a tiny forest filled with life and energy. Epiphytes are plants living on other plants, which mosses are, but there are even epiphytes. *GM pg 54,p2;55,p2* There are even little creatures called tardigrades. These micro animals also known as water bears or moss piglets are eight-legged and live among the moss forest. Moss also houses invertebrates which mostly graze on the algae and bacteria on the moss. Moss itself has very little nutrients except for its spores, so not many creatures eat it.   

Moss adds a mystical depth to an already rich environment. The more you come to know moss the more you can appreciate the little details around you. With the little clump of moss, a rock outside, wispy moss hanging from ancient trees, or just a simple sidewalk crack, you can appreciate everything around you. Take a look around you next time you’re outside and see just how much moss you can spot. MYTH BREAKER: MOSS DOESN’T JUST GROW ON THE NORTH SIDE OF THE TREE! If you try and tell what direction you’re facing by looking at which side of the tree has the most moss, you will send yourself around in circles. Although in perfect conditions with no other variables moss will grow more on the north side (away from the sun, so the south side in the southern hemisphere). However, in just about any forest, you find yourself in there are so many more variables that can affect where the moss grows more abundantly. So if you’re going bushwalking, bring a compass and map!

The resources I used are listed below:

Kimmerer, R. W. (2003). Gathering Moss (17th ed.). Oregon State University Press.

Thank you for tuning in today and join me next week as we explore the l life of the magnificant snail and other little forest creatures.





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