Importance of moss
Mosses often go unnoticed because many people do not realize how ancient, important and fascinating they are.
There are an estimated 12,000 species of moss that are classified as Bryophytes, which are among the group of plants that reproduce by spores. They are important because they are among the first plants to colonize open ground and may well be the ancestors of the first plants on Earth.
Mosses may be small and inconspicuous and their economic uses not immediately obvious but there are some surprising ways in which moss is and has been used.
In construction, mosses can provide chinking and even building material. As mosses are among the first colonizers of disturbed sites they are used in so-called “green roof technology" to vegetate roofs. They have also been used in boat construction. In the Scottish Highlands mosses were prepared by steeping in tar and then used for caulk (to make vessels watertight).
In Japan mosses are often used on walls, embankments and roofs for both aesthetic purposes and practical ones; however, more often than not people try to get rid of moss as its moisture and organic acids contribute to the degradation of stonework.
Mosses are often used to condition the soil. Coarse-textured mosses increase water storage whereas fine-textured mosses provide air spaces.
Peat mosses are the most important economically as they were, and still are, an important source of fuel in some countries. Peat is derived largely from Sphagnum moss. The great advantage of peat as a fuel is that it is clean burning.
As Peat mosses readily absorb large amounts of water they are often used in the horticultural industry to improve the water-holding capacity of soil since they are typically acidic (which prevents the growth of most bacteria) and they have been used as an antiseptic dressing for wounds.
In Scotland Sphagnum moss is even used in the making of whisky!
Along with other bryophytes, mosses have not been top of the conservation industry list but many of the conservation measures aimed at other plants and animals, such as increasing broadleaf woodland, also benefit mosses.
Conservationists, however, have been concerned with the loss of valuable wetlands due to peat-moss harvesting and these concerns have led to the creation of codes of practice for harvesting peat in order that it will remain a sustainable resource.
A South American peninsula hosts more than 5% of the world’s bryophyte species, but it needed a special project to reveal these "invisible" plants.
The Sub Antarctic Magellanic region spans parts of Argentina and Chile and has a rich diversity of wild habitats including the world’s most southerly forests, rocky beaches, moorland, tundra and high-altitude zones.
A survey of the bryophytes (mosses, hornworts and liverworts) and lichens living there confirmed that more than 5% of the world’s bryophytes were to be found there.
Designated the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve (CHBR) by UNESCO, finally guarantees protection for one of the world’s last unspoilt regions.
References: Ecotourism with a Hand Lens in the Omora Park, Dr Adam Wilson, Sub-Antarctic Biocultural Conservation Program, Universidad de Magallanes, University of North Texas, Ediciones Universidad de Magallanes; Scottish Natural Heritage; The New York Botanical Garden; ECCB – European Committee for Conservation of Bryophytes; Bryophyte Ecology, Janice M. Glime; Botany for gardeners, Brian Capon, Third edition, Timber Press.