Field of Science

The Bryophytes on the Cover

The front cover oElizabeth Gilbert's new novel The Signature of All Things features some lovely bryophyte paintings. They are from the 1905 edition of the German encyclopedia Meyers Konversations-Lexikon. I have not had the pleasure of perusing this encyclopedia, but I do have fond memories of an English version of encyclopedia Britannica. My parents bought a set when I was in elementary school. Black and red cover, crisp glossy pages. Ah, memories. Can you tell I am a bit of a bibliophile? For those of you who have not enjoyed a hardbound encyclopedia set, they were the precursor to google and wikipedia. Want to know something about a fast animal, far-a-way country, historic event, or odd fruit? As my dad would always say, "Go check the encyclopedia." It provided tons of information to answer my pressing questions and constant need to know. Sometimes my sister and I would just sit down with a volume and flip through pages, reading about interesting topics for fun. Did I mention that I grew up in rural Indiana and there weren't a lot of entertainment options?  

Back to the bryophytes of the beautiful image on the cover of The Signature of All Things. In terms of bryophyte identification, there are some complex thalloid liverworts in front with tall antheridiophores and archegoniophores springing up from the ribbons below. Antheridiophores are the male reproductive structures that produce sperm; archegoniophores are the female reproductive structures that make eggs.  On either edge of the cover are mosses with sporophyte capsules elevated on tall stalks. They are most definitely members of the Splachnaceae, the dung moss family. I love saying that name (SP-laCK!-n-ace-a-ee). It has a very dung-y ring to the name! My best guess on a species level identification is Splachnum luteum.  The common names for members of this genus are really great. They include umbrella moss and petticoat moss, which describe the shape of the capsules. I think that petticoat moss is especially fitting for the cover of a book set in Victorian times, about a woman who most likely wore petticoats. 


  1. There's a super Splachnaceae story in Ron Porley's new(ish) book about rare English bryophytes - concerning an attempt to increase 'carrion moss' populations by seeding an area with carcasses. Apparently it failed.

    1. That sounds like a pretty cool experiment! What kinds of carcasses did they add and how long did they wait to see if the moss populations increased? I added Porley's book to my wish list, but with that as an example of the cool content it is definitely moving closer to the top. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Those complex thalloids look very much like Marchantia polymorpha.


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