One Question Quiz
Images from the author’s appreciation Instagram (Image: supplied)
Images from the author’s appreciation Instagram (Image: supplied)

ScienceOctober 24, 2021

Creeping beauty: An appreciation of moss

Images from the author’s appreciation Instagram (Image: supplied)
Images from the author’s appreciation Instagram (Image: supplied)

The weird flat plant has been unloved for too long, writes Sharon Lam.

In 2014 I discovered a very cute trend of marimo moss balls, little spheres of moss that can grow with just a bit of daylight in a glass of water. Impulsively, I bought one off AliExpress for $2. When it arrived I researched how to keep it alive, wanting the best for my new lifelong friend. It was only then that I discovered they were actually very illegal in New Zealand. If released into waterways, the cute moss balls were capable of didymo-esque terror, and a Christchurch student in 2012 had gone to court for importing and selling them locally. I immediately “turned myself in” and a biosecurity employee came in a high-vis jumpsuit to take the unopened parcel away. 

Marimo moss is not actually moss. It is an algae, originating in ponds rather than on land. In general, moss is not a transplantable being, and is almost impossible to grow and replicate on command. It is everywhere, but never by sentient intention. Without shoots or roots, and with leaves that are only a cell thick, they have quite remarkably sown themselves in almost every type of ecosystem on Earth in some 12,000 variations.

In the extremely good book Gathering Moss, Robin Wall Kimmerer explains the troubles a very rich unnamed figure goes to curate his own authentic moss garden. He hires a team of round-the-clock specialists and consultants, including Kimmerer. She can only recommend spraying theoretical “moss milkshakes”, insisting that moss simply takes time, and lots of it. In the end he resorts to pillaging a nearby forest, cutting and pasting mosses into his artificial arena. When they inevitably die, they are replaced via more pillaging. Was buying marimo moss online any better?

I later came into a less pillagy way to appreciate moss. It was a trip during architecture school, when a group of us visited Ian Athfield’s former home, a sprawling amalgamation of rooms across the Khandallah hillside. It was blue, sunny. Atop the white-plastered spine of the complex, with the sea seemingly at eye level, it felt like Santorini (at least for someone whose entire impression of Santorini is from The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2).

Among the architectural wonder and poor person’s Mediterranean illusion, I became distracted by something else. A bright yellow patina screamed out across various white horizontal surfaces. I took out my camera and snapped away. The yellow looked like a flattened coral reef, with all its colour and complexity growing within the width of a half-height wall. In the rivulets and rosettes were visions of shapes, animals, the future, hidden resentments, and so on. It was the first time I really saw lichen and moss.

Beautiful (image: supplied)

Like an ex in Wellington, I started seeing it everywhere. On the war-era remnants of Matiu Island, on fences in suburban Christchurch. It being 2016, I made a dedicated Tumblr to post the miniature landscapes. I always took the photos top-down, with the moss removed from its surroundings, this way the photos felt the most abstract and focused. In captions, I named each one based on instinctual flavour – Cookie Monster, Mermaid, July, Not Too Much.

In the five years since, I have collected photographs of moss and lichen from Cape Reinga to Orokonui, the temple walls of Angkor Wat, tree trunks of Borneo rainforests and rocks of Okinawa beaches. I moved my blog to Instagram, keeping the name “Moss and Me”. After taking hundreds of photos, I felt like I should actually learn about moss and lichen and very quickly realised the name was not just grammatically incorrect but also scientifically incorrect (most of the photos are of pure lichen, with no moss, and while both are non-vascular, moss is an individual plant while lichen is a combination of algae and fungi growing together).

I started to add amateur scientific identification, courtesy of the free introductory NZ lichen guide by Dr Allison Knight. I learnt that moss was used by indigenous women in North America and Aotearoa as sanitary pads, and by bears to stop them from pooing during hibernation. I learnt that lichen has had notable value in history, with people in the 19th century scraping the rocks of Scotland to sell as colour dye and people in the 21st century scraping off “sexy pavement lichen” to sell as Viagra. Their value is in part due to their slow growth – up to 2cm a year. Undisturbed, a single lichen can outlive civilisations (up to 10,000 years) and lichenometry helped determine the age of the Moai of Easter Island. 

Suddenly, I got what Kimmerer meant by “moss coloured glasses”. It was not about having a jar of illegal moss on a coffee table. It was understanding how “attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens”. The green, yellows and oranges of slivers of city and country were now appearing as a Kill Bill-esque alarm system, alerting me to a whole new layer of life. Organisms that, in the words of lichenologist David Galloway, “make inorganic life organic”.

Crucial to the forests and other ecosystems they find themselves in (whether as nutrient, a cooling device, or a source of moisture), we would not be here if not for moss. And yet for most of us, we’ve hardly tried to get to know moss at all. We have come into their world to hose them out with brute force and chemicals, and for what gain? Moss and lichen are highly sensitive to pollution – if anything, their continued presence should be reassuring, not encroaching.

Perhaps, like many acts of antagonism, it stems from fear. Instinctively we understand that they were here before us, and will be here long after. As the ethereal movie The Green Knight poses: “We deck our halls with it and dye our linens. But should it come creeping up the cobbles, we scrub it out, fast as we can….green is what is left when ardour fades, when passion dies, when we die, too...moss shall cover your tombstone, and as the sun rises, green shall spread over all, in all its shades and hues…all you hold dear will succumb to it. Your skin, your bones, your virtue”.

Keep going!