When you think of Kansas City, you may think of giant Oak trees, tall sunflowers, or gorgeous shrubs. Mosses are very likely not to come to mind in the City of Fountains. While they are a little unorthodox in their appearance and evolutionary strategy, mosses are some of the most interesting plants you can observe in the wild, even here in Kansas City. Minnie Reed, author of the first published flora of the mosses of Kansas, described them as “vagrants from every region in North America, as here is the middle ground where the different flora meet, or overlap.”  

Bright green mosses litter the floor of many temperate forests and temperate rainforests of North America.

What makes mosses unique is their small and inconspicuous size and nature. There might be 10 different species of moss on one boulder, yet to the untrained eye it appears as one giant moss carpet. In a way, size plays to their advantage. They are able to exist at the boundary layer of airflow where the surface of the Earth meets the sky. In this “layer” is where water is kept moist and cool – allowing every dewdrop to satiate the mat of moss and prevent it from drying out. This strategy is what allowed plants to colonize Earth in the first place. 

All plants, but especially mosses, crate their own air boundary layer in order to have a protective place for them to grow.

Mosses belong to a group of plants called the bryophytes. Bryophytes are unique in that they lack vascular tissues. Vascular tissues are the cells in many plants that are used to transport water and nutrients throughout their bodies. Mosses don’t transport water and nutrients; they just sort of live within a soupy concoction of substrate, nutrients, and water. This keep them happy, healthy and flourishing.  

Prairies of Kansas, known to get drier and rockier as you head west, actually support many species of mosses. So in order to overcome dying out from the dry conditions, some mosses will “take a break” during the hottest parts of the year or when there is not enough water to go around. Their dormancy period protects them from death and lets them chill out until things are a little wetter and cooler. 

Hylocomium splendens, commonly known as glittering woodmoss, is a pleurocarpous moss. Pleurocarpous means the moss will usually grow flat to the ground.

Plants are unique compared to animals because they have two different “generations” when they reproduce. One of their generations is made up of half the number of genes, while the other is made up of a complete set of genes. Unlike other plants where the two generations are completely separate, mosses retain the two generations together. They are like nurturing mothers of the plant world, ensuring their little baby gets what they need before moving on to produce spores and move to greener pastures. 

This is a diagram of the cycle of the common haircap moss (Polytrichum commune). This species can be found in North America and temperate parts of islands in the Pacific.

There is so much more interesting natural history and science in the study of mosses. If you would like to dive further into this topic, consider reading or listening to some of the books in our collection:  

Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Miniature Moss Gardens by Megumi Oshima

Native ferns, moss & grasses by William Culina

The Mole Sisters and the piece of moss by Roslyn Schwartz

Anansi and the moss-covered rock by Eric A. Kimmel

There are also many great resources online to learn more about mosses! Try out these resources:

Here is a great coloring page and field guide for children to help them learn more about mosses.

If you would like to learn how to grow moss on your own, try this step-by-step guide.

Mosses were the first plants to evolve the ability to survive on Earth’s surface, rather than in the water.