Moss drapes itself around trees and boulders like warm, cozy shawls. It carpets the banks of intermittent streams and glistens like diamonds beside seeps and springs trickling up from the rocks. These areas are beautiful in their own right, but mosses enrich our Missouri landscape.
Mosses generally prefer cool, moist, unpolluted areas. They grow on trees, both living and dead. They grow on soil, in streams and even on the barren, dry rocks of glades and shut-ins. Some also thrive in man-made habitats, including rooftops, especially thatched, slate and shake roofs. They also inhabit cement surfaces and disturbed banks along trails and roadways.
Each species of moss, however, grows only in specific habitats. These habitats are typically distinguishable by temperature, available moisture and light and the texture and chemistry of the substrate. For example, some species of mosses growing on rocks may be restricted to calcareous rock, such as limestone and dolomite. Others may be restricted to siliceous rock, such as sandstone and granite.
Because many mosses are able to grow on rock or on open ground, they are important in preventing soil erosion and in building soil, thus allowing larger plants to move into previously uninhabitable areas. Also, many small insects live in the moist, protected habitat created by these small plants. Some, such as the water bear, or moss piglet, actually feed on the moss itself. In northern tundra regions, moss is important food for some large animals. In addition, a number of species of birds use mosses in their nests.
People also have benefited from mosses. Not many years ago, people would use highly absorbent peat moss (in the genus Sphagnum) for diapers and as lining for cribs. When cotton was in short supply during WWI, peat moss was used for bandages. Although more difficult to use, it was more absorbent than cotton and had natural antibiotic qualities that fought infections.
Today, dried mosses are used as packing materials for fruits and vegetables, fragile items and live plants. When used as a soil amendment, they can improve the ability of sandy soils to hold moisture. When added to clay, they lighten the soil, improving aeration and drainage.
Probably the most significant economic use of mosses today, however, is the widespread use of peat moss for fuel in other countries, which is estimated to be a billion dollar industry.
Living moss is also used for monitoring heavy metal contamination in streams and rivers. Like lichens, it