Field of Science

The Mosses of her Passion - The Signature of All Things

From the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of
The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY
***Spoiler Alert***
This post may contain plot details and quotes from The Signature of All Things
Proceed with caution!

The mosses have finally arrived as significant characters in Part 3! We discover that Alma has decided to devote her time and energies to studying mosses in the genus Dicranum and she becomes the world expert on this group.  I am most familiar with Dicranum scoparium, the broom moss, which is common in eastern deciduous forests. It's common name comes from the leaves that are all curving in the same direction, as though the moss had been used to sweep the floor. It is one of the first species I like to teach people when walking in the woods. It is charismatic and easy to recognize. 

The moss pictured in this plate is Dicranum squarrosum. The specific epithet of the scientific name describes the leaves of this species, which stick out at right angles to the stem. This arrangement is due to the leaves having a bend in them, which can be seen at the bottom center of the plate. 

It was a bit of a tease, or foreshadowing, that these images of Dicranum were placed at the end of Part I, long before Alma discovered her passion for mosses. Mostly it had me wondering when we would start to hear more about the mosses.  Stay tuned for more to come on the mosses of Part 3!

The Signature of All Things: Part 2 - Catching bryophyte fever

***Spoiler Alert***
This post may contain plot details and quotes from Parts 1 & 2 of The Signature of All Things. Proceed with caution!

The second part of The Signature of All Things focuses on the childhood of the main character Alma Whittaker. In my mind the true main characters, the bryophytes, have yet to truly arrive on the scene. There is a brief mention of mosses being used by birds as material for nest building. Alma also uses mosses to fill the chinks in the walls of her study to cut down on winter drafts. Hornworts come up during a scientific discussion between Alma and her colleague George Hawkes. He describes them to another friend as "...among our least sophisticated plants-". I take mild offense to that statement. I think hornworts are super interesting and highly sophisticated in their ability to establish a mutualistic interaction with cyanobacteria (blue-green algae). They have pores on the underside of the plant that open to allow the algae to enter. The algae then live and grow inside of the hornwort helping to fix nitrogen, making it available for the hornwort to use. I think that establishing a relationship like that is pretty sophisticated. Don't you?

At the tail end of Part 2 bryophytes take their rightful place at center stage. Alma has a revelation that right beneath her nose, on the land she has known her entire life, is a world unexplored. The miniature world of mosses. An entire rock may be covered by dozens of species that occupy distinct niches. A little sunnier over here, a little wetter over there, makes for diverse habitats even within a few feet. It is amazing how small changes in the microclimate can make such a big difference to the bryophytes. The description of Alma's epiphany to focus her botanical energies on mosses is full of lovely imagery, such as the passage below. 
"Now the miniature forest below her gaze sprang into majestic detail. She felt her breath catch. This was a stupefying kingdom. This was the Amazon jungle as seen from the back of a harpy eagle. She rode her eye above the surprising landscape, following its paths in every direction. Here were rich, abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and minuscule, tangled vines. Here were barely visible tributaries running through that jungle..."
Having done so myself, falling in love with bryophytes is an amazing experience. Upon closer inspection, you realize that there is a world of wonder to explore in miniature. The closer you look the more there is to discover. An adventure that can last a lifetime. 

December 2013 Desktop Calendar

The fact that I have exhausted my moss photos from summer hiking definitely means that I am in need of some outdoor time with plants. Fortunately winter in California means it is possible to see mosses without having to dig them out of the snow. I just wish we had a little more rain to help make them more photogenic. My goal before the holiday break. Find some mosses. Take some photos. 

In the meantime this is another view from our summer hiking in New Hampshire to the top of Mt. Monadnock. From this vantage the trees could be a mossy carpet trailing off into the distance...

1 - Single click on the image to open it up in a new window. (If you use the image directly from the blog post you will lose a lot of resolution.)

2 - Right-click (or ctrl-click) on the image, and chose the option that says, "Set as Desktop Background" or "Use as Desktop Picture". The wording may vary.

3 - If the image does not fit your desktop neatly, you may have to adjust the image (Mac: System Preferences - Desktop and Screen Saver - Desktop; Windows: Control Panel - Display - Desktop) and choose "Fill screen" as the display mode of your background image.