Field of Science

Mosses as the Ultimate House Plant

As many of you know, house plants require regular watering and attention. I usually water mine once a week unless it is quite hot. If I forget to water them they start to wilt and with extreme lack of attention on my part they shrivel and die, which has happened on occasion.

Most flowering plants are drought tolerant. Meaning, they can handle times with low amounts of water, but mostly they try to avoid drying out completely. They have a number of cool features that keep water from escaping their bodies. Bark and a thick waxy cuticle layer keeps water in the stems and leaves, respectively. They can also control how open or closed their stomata are to regulate the amount of water that escapes from these pores. And an extensive root system keeps a constant stream of water flowing into the plant.

Mosses have a completely different system than the one I just described. Instead of having features that keep them from drying out, they are ready and willing to dry out at a moments notice. They are termed dessication tolerant. They have the ability to loose ~100% of the water in their cells and then when watered they come back to life. It is as though they are able to go into periods of suspended animation while they wait for the water to return.

Most flowering plants are not dessication tolerant. If they loose 70-100% of the water from their cells they are toast (aka. dry and dead) and will not recover. However having a moss as a house plant would be a great solution for those of us who sometimes forget to water the plants before leaving for vacation. They could dry out completely for a number of days and happily return to life when watered again. Thus I would consider them the ultimate resilient house plant!

Shown here is a photo of a Polytrichum that is all dried up and crispy, patiently waiting for some moisture to come its way.

This post was stimulated by an article that I am currently reading. See below the fold for the reference, which includes more detailed information on dessication tolerance in mosses.

Proctor, M. C. F., M. J. Oliver, A. J. Wood, P. Alpert, L. R. Stark, N. L. Cleavitt, and B. D. Mishler. 2007. Dessication-tolerance in bryophytes: a review. The Bryologist 110(4):595-621.

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