Meet The Powder Gun Moss

I get very excited when I am able to identify a new moss. This is mainly due to the fact that moss ID is one of my weakest points. I was sitting down on a rock the other day taking a break from vegetation surveys when I looked to my right and saw something peculiar. The area was pretty sloped and there was some exposed soil in the vicinity. Covering some of that soil was what looked like green fuzz. Embedded in that fuzz were these strange green urns.

I busted out my hand lens and got a closer look. This was definitely a moss but one I had never seen before. The urns turned out to be capsules. Later, a bit of searching revealed this to be a species of moss in the genus Diphyscium. This genus is the largest within the family Diphysciaceae and here in North America, we have two representatives - D. foliosum and D. mucronifolium.

These peculiar mosses have earned themselves the common name 'powder gun moss.' The reason for this lies in those strange sessile capsules. Unlike other mosses that send their capsules up on long, hair-like seta in order to disperse their spores on the faintest of breezes, the Diphyscium capsules remain close to the ground. In lieu of wind, a powder gun moss uses rain. In much the same way puffball mushrooms harness the pounding of raindrops, so too do the capsules of the powder gun moss. Each raindrop that hits a capsule releases a cloud of spores that are ejected into an already humid environment full of germination potential.

Luckily for moss lovers like myself, the two species of Diphyscium here in North America tend to enjoy very different habitats. This makes a positive ID much more likely. D. foliosum prefers to grow on bare soils whereas D. mucronifolium prefers humid rock surfaces. Because of this distinction, I am quite certain the species I encountered is D. foliosum. And what a pleasant encounter it was. Like I said, it isn't often I accurately ID a moss so this genus now holds a special place in my mind.

Further Reading: [1] [2]


The Tallest Moss

For all the attributes we apply to the world of bryophytes, height is usually not one of them. That is, unless you are talking about the genus Dawsonia. Within this taxonomic grouping exists the tallest mosses in the world. Topping out around 60 cm (24 inches),  Dawsonia superba enjoys heights normally reserved for vascular plants. Although this may not seem like much to those who are more familiar with robust forbs and towering trees, height is not a trait that comes easy to mosses. To find out why, we must take a look at the interior workings of these lowly plants. 

Mosses as a whole lack the vascularization of more derived plants. In other words, they do not have the internal plumbing that can carry water to various tissues. Coupled with the lack of a cuticle, this means that mosses are quite sensitive to water loss. For most mosses, this anatomical feature relegates them to humid environments and/or a small stature. This is not the case for Dawsonia. Thanks to a curious case of convergent evolution, this genus breaks this physiological glass ceiling and reaches for the sky. 

Unlike other mosses, Dawsonia have a conduction system analogous to xylem and phloem. Being convergent, however, it isn't the same thing. Instead, the xylem-like tissue of these mosses is called the "hydrome" and is made up of cells called "hydroids." The phloem-like tissue is called the "leptome" and is made up of cells called "leptoids." These structures differ from xylem and phloem in that they are not lignified. Mosses never evolved the ability to produce this organic polymer. Regardless of their chemical makeup, Dawsonia vascular tissue allows water to move greater distances within the plant.

Another major adaption found in Dawsonia has to do with the structure of the leaves. Whereas the leaves of most mosses are only a few cells thick, the leaves of Dawsonia produce special cells on their surface called "lamella." These cells are analogous to the mesophyll cells in the leaves of vascular plants. They not only function to increase surface area and CO2 uptake, they also serve to maintain a humid layer of air within the leaf, further reducing water loss. 

All of this equates to a genus of moss that has reached considerable proportions. Sure, they are easily overtopped by most vascular plant species but that is missing the point. Through convergent evolution, mosses in the genus Dawsonia have independently evolved an anatomical strategy that has allowed it to do what no other extant groups of moss have done - grow tall. 

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons, Doug Beckers, and Jon Sullivan

American Heart's Tongue Fern

When looking for ferns, it is easy to have a specific kind of search imagine in your head. Your mind's eye is tuned into the long, lacy look of dissected fronds but there are ferns out there that will challenge you to break that mold. I have had the wonderful privilege of meeting some of these fern species this year, but there is one species in particular that has really stuck out.

Meet the American hart's tongue fern, Asplenium scolopendrium var. americanum. The hart's tongue, as you can see, is absolutely striking. Its long, slender, uncut fronds form a disheveled rosette and the sori running along the underside make each frond look like a big, green centipede. Asplenium scolopendrium itself is a wide ranging species of fern, growing on limestone outcroppings throughout Europe but populations in North America are rather sparse and disjunct. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed it as a threatened species. There are some morphological distinctions between the European and North American populations but the major difference is in their number of chromosomes. European hart's tongues are diploid whereas North America's are tetraploid. Because of these differences, botanists consider them distinct varieties.

Why the American variety is so rare is not fully understood, but human activities have not helped matters. Mining, logging, and development have wiped out many historic populations of these ferns. Their habitat specificity mixed with their already low numbers make for little to no range expansion for most populations. They seem to grow in close association with dolomitic limestone, which is high in magnesium. 

They also seem to rely on a specific mix of bryophyte communities, low light levels, moisture, and snow pack in order to persist. Spores that land on significant bryophyte patches seem to germinate better. Young ferns seem to perform better in mixed light levels, especially near canopy gaps. It has also been shown that snow pack is directly correlated to the vigor of each population. In years with below average snow pack, the plants seem to have trouble retaining enough moisture to survive.

This is such an incredible species of fern. To lose it would mean a serious loss for our planet. There is a good effort being put forth to protect, study, grow, and form a deeper understanding with the American hart's tongue fern. The more we learn about this species, the better we can understand what it is going to take to ensure that it persists far into the future.

Photo Credit: James Johnson (

Further Reading:

Poop Moss

Coming this month to a bog near you...

Splachnum moss!


Splachnum has to be one of the most interesting genera of mosses in the world. When we think about habitat specificity, we usually think of some sort of endangered or rare habitat type. The mind definitely would not go to poop. Yet, this is exactly where Splachnum grow.


These mosses are specialists on animal dung. What's more, since different animals produce different kinds of poop with different chemical makeups and different textures, different species of Splachnum specialize on different kinds of poop. Deer poop is a favorite haunt of Splachnum ampullulceum whereas coyote or wolf poop will be inhabited by Splachnum luteum. 

If this ecology wasn't specific enough, Splachnum cannot inhabit poop anywhere it lands. These mosses can only be found on poop which has landed in either a bog or a fen. As one can probably guess, poop quickly breaks down. Its ephemeral nature, especially in a wet bog, means that Splachnum mosses can't be bothered with a chance encounter via wind-borne spores. Instead, these mosses utilize other poop specialists, flies. 


Splachnum spores are produced at the tip of very long, very ornate sporophytes. They are large, colorful, and some even produce a fetid odor in hopes of attracting their winged spore dispersers. Once a fly lands to investigate, it becomes covered in sticky Splachnum spores. When it lands on another pile of poop, some of the spores will fall off and find a new pile of rotting dung to colonize. Because poop decomposes rather quickly, the Splachnum mosses don't bother with lots of vegetative growth. A small gametophyte quickly produces a grandiose display of sporophytes so that the next generation can get a head start before the fecal substrate decomposes out from underneath the parent. Also, Splachnum colonies actively skew their sex ratio to favore females over males 2:1. This ensures that there is as much spore production as possible. 

July is the perfect time of summer in the North to go looking for Splachnum. Keep an eye out and tread lightly. These lovely little mosses with their peculiar natural history are a real gem to discover. They are a wonderful reminder of how complex of a world we live in. 

Photo Credits: caspar s (, madcowcult (Wikimedia Commons), and Biopix: A Neumann (

Further Reading:

Ancient Equisetum

Whenever you cross paths with an Equisetum, you are looking at a member of the sole surviving genus of a once great lineage. The horsetails, as they are commonly called, hit their peak during the Devonian Era, some 350 + million years ago. Back then, they comprised a considerable portion of those early forests. Much of the world's coal deposits are derived from these plants.

The horsetails once towered over the landscape, reaching heights of 30 meters or more. Today, however, they have been reduced to mostly small, lanky plants. The tallest of the extant horestails are the giant horsetail (Equisetum giganteum) and the Mexican giant horsetail (Equisetum myriochaetum) of Central and South America. These two species are known to reach heights of 16 ft. (4 m.) and 24 ft. (7 m.) respectively. Certainly an impressive site to see.

Equisetum giganteum (Chad Husby for scale.)

Equisetum giganteum (Chad Husby for scale.)

As a genus, Equisetum is composed of somewhere around 20 species, with many instances of hybridization known to occur. Most species tend to frequent wet areas, though dry, nutrient poor soils seem to suit some species just fine. The horsetails are known for their biomineralisation of silica, earning some the common name of "scouring rush." Settlers used to use these plants to clean their pots and pans. However, this is certainly not why this trait evolved. It is likely that the silicates have something to do with structural support as well as physical protection against pathogens. More work needs to be done looking at the benefits rather than the mechanisms involved.

Equisetum myriochaetum

Equisetum myriochaetum

Though they are not ferns, horsetails are frequently referred to as "fern allies." This is due to the fact that, like ferns, horsetails are not seed plants. Instead, they produce spores and exhibit a distinct alternation of generations between the small, gamete-producing gametophyte and the tall spore-producing sporophyte. Spores are produced from a cone-like structure at the top of the stem called a stobilus. This may be attached to the photosynthetic stem or it can arise as its own non-photosynthetic stem. Either way it is an interesting structure to encounter and well worth studying under some form of magnification.

Despite their diminutive appearance, many horsetails are quite hardy and thrive in human disturbance. For this reason, horsetails such as E. hyemale and E. arvense have come to be considered aggressive invasive species in many areas. They thrive in nutrient poor soils and their deep, wide-ranging rhizomes can make control difficult to impossible. There is something to be said for these little plants. Love them or hate them, they have stood the test of time. They were some of the first plants on land and it is likely that some will be here to stay, even if we go the way of the Devonian forests.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]