By FRED SEITZ — Walk down the trail to Magruder Park and admire the logs bordering the trail, and you cannot help but notice beautiful green moss growing on them. These lovely bryophytes that enjoy shade and moisture have about 12,000 different relatives and a history dating back nearly 300 million years.

When walking in wooded areas, you can often see a variety of mosses growing on rocks and other shaded outcrops. While most mosses prefer shade and moisture, there are a few types that tolerate direct sunlight. 

Mosses provide homes for small critters, mostly insects. Few animals eat moss, but some birds and animals do nibble it to get moisture.

Mosses help break down other materials, and this action provides nutrients for other plants, helps preserve the soil and allows the soil to absorb water that is also used by other plants.  

These characteristics have promoted the commercial growth of some types of mosses, such as sphagnum moss, which are used to help preserve water and landscapes. Additionally, moss provides aesthetic appeal.  

We have used sphagnum moss, which grows in bogs, for centuries. We’ve used it, dried, as  fuel to heat our homes and to make Scotch whiskey, and in peat moss for gardening. It also has antiseptic properties and was used as bandages in both the Civil War and World War I. 

Interestingly, mosses do not blossom and spread pollen like flowers and trees. They reproduce either by spreading spores or as broken pieces that grow into new plants. 

Many of us who were scouts or participated in various outdoor programs were told that we could use green moss growing on the north side of the tree as a navigational aid. Intriguing, though, this “green moss” is actually not a moss, but a type of algae.

Moss has found its way into folklore, too. Cree Indians tell a tale of moss being used to help dam a great flood ( Indigenous people living near the Gulf of Mexico tell how a conflict between the north and south winds caused the north wind to lose its hair and cling to trees (When the Storm God Rides: Tejas and Other Indian Legends by Florence Stratton, 1936).

Whether or not they can stop a flood or cover the north wind’s balding head, our mosses provide a home for small critters and a calming sight for passers-by.