Field of Science

Mosses and the Masses

Ethnobryology is the scientific study of the relationships between people and bryophytes. Some of the uses that people have for mosses and their bryophyte pals include: pollution indicators, decoration in horticulture, fuel, and medicinal purposes. The article that we read last week in laboratory group focused on both folk naming of mosses and their uses in traditional cultures.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchHarris, Eric S. J. 2008 Ethnobryology: traditional uses and folk classifications of bryophytes. Bryologist 111(2):169-217.

The discussion of the naming of mosses was really interesting. Dr. Harris points out that many small organisms tend to be lumped together into a group and all called 'mosses'. These include lichens, red algae, lycopods, and the flowering plant Spanish moss. A good point that he makes is that people operate on a large scale from centimeters to kilometers. Mosses are small and the features that are typically used to tell species apart are super tiny and difficult or impossible to see without a microscope. So its small, green, hard to tell apart, then people historically called it a 'moss', whether on not the organisms were actually close relatives.

Dr. Harris identified 150 species with traditional ethnobryological uses. The largest category was medicinal (41%), with uses ranging from treating heart conditions to regrowing hair. Many of these treatments are used and were determined from Traditional Chinese Medicine. In addition to medicinal mosses are used for chinking spaces in the walls of houses, decoration, cleaning, packing, and bedding. This article makes it apparent that traditional cultures are much more connected to the plants that surround them and use them in their everyday lives.

Despite all these uses, most people in the USA probably do not have much personal use of mosses in their daily lives. Besides studying them professionally, the only time I think that I use them is when peat moss comes mixed in the potting soil that I buy for my houseplants. If you have any other uses for mosses in your everyday life feel free to share them in the comments section.

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