Field of Science

More from The Signature of All Things

***Spoiler Alert***
This post may contain plot details and quotes from The Signature of All

In the midst of the drama and intrigue that plays out in this book are some great mossy points for discussion. 

At one point Alma mentions that mosses have no internal skeleton to support themselves growing tall, thus they are relatively short. Additionally they cannot transport water within their bodies. Bryophytes are typically called non-vascular because that lack the conducting tissues of xylem and phloem. These tissues transport water and sugars to and from the roots and leaves. 

This is a distinction that I would often point out between bryophytes and other plants. More recently I have come to question and debate this point. Some mosses do have cells that move water and sugars internally from one part or their body to another, called hydroids and leptoids. They are similar to the cells of xylem and phloem of vascular plants. Some of them are dead at maturity and/or have modified end walls with perforations, allowing for faster transport. What these cells lack is the compound lignin in their cell walls. Lignin both strengthens the cell walls and makes them impermeable to water. Creating stronger and less leaky transport tubes. Lignin is what gives wood its strength and enables trees to grow tall. Mosses have some of the chemical precursors to lignin (Ligrone et al. 2008), but they did not evolve this compound. So I get that lignin is important, but some bryophytes do have conducting cells that move water and sugars around in their bodies. I wouldn't call them vascular, but they are not lacking internal water transport either. 


Alma describes mosses as being defined by what they lack. No flowers, no seed, no fruits, no roots, and no internal skeleton. Mosses also do not engage in sex. All these points are true except for the last one. Mosses do in fact produce offspring by sexual reproduction. They have eggs and swimming sperm that fuse to form the sporophyte offspring. My guess is that this inaccuracy was intentional. 

The alternation of generation in plants was elucidated in 1851 by Wilhelm Hofmeister (Kaplan and Cooke, 1996). Though Alma is described as having corresponded with researchers around the world, she may not have read Hofmeister's work. He was based in Germany and his 1851 work was printed by his family's publishing company. I am not sure how widely the work would have circulated at that time. Thus at this time the reproduction of mosses was a "mystery to the naked human eye". This aspect lead to their being known by the evocative name Cryptogamae, which means hidden marriage. 

So Alma's statement that mosses do not engage in sex was an accurate statement for that time in our scientific knowledge of plants. Kudos to the author and her bryological guru for their attention to detail. I think it is good when we acknowledge that science is not a static bank of knowledge. We are constantly discovering and expanding our understanding of the world around us. Looking back at the history of where science has been helps us to appreciate how far we have come

This is part of a series of posts about the bryology in The Signature of All. 
Click here for all the posts in the series. 


Deep Fried Moss

I was incredibly excited to find out about the Danish* restaurant Noma serving fried moss on the menu! My sister heard the story on a podcast from the America's Test Kitchen. In the show, host Christopher Kimball interviews RenĂ© Redzepi, the chef of Noma, during Segment #2 and the fried mosses are briefly mentioned at the end of their interview. Considering this restaurant is located in Copenhagen* and is on the extremely pricy end I don't think that I will be eating fried mosses there any time soon. But I really wanted to get a look at a plate and I did some hunting around online. 

There are a number of people who have taken photos of their plates and have posted them up online. I didn't want to repost personal photos, so I linked to a few of them that you can check out below.

After looking at a few of the plates did you discover the truth? It is not in fact a fried bryophyte, but is a fried lichen! Oh the mossy-misnomers. One of the common names for the lichen Cladonia rangiferina is reindeer moss and that is the organism that is fried and intended for eating. There are, however, mosses on the plates. Many of the plates look to be covered in Leucobryum, the pin cushion moss. Serving platters are typically washed and reused. Do you think they rinse off the mosses and then used them to serve the next customer. I would hate to hear that they tossed out the mosses after a single serving.

I also wonder if anyone tries to eat the bryophyte mosses off the plate? If they did, I don't think that they would find them too tasty or with much nutritional value. Not many animals eat mosses. Just a few northern creatures, such as caribou and lemmings. Based on caribou stomach contents, they mainly eat mosses during the winter and probably just to fill hungry stomachs. I remember a great graphic showing the percentages of items found in the stomachs of caribou throughout the year with a spike in the mosses during the winter, but I couldn't locate the study. If this reference rings a bell for anyone please drop a message in the comments. 

* An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly locate Noma in Norway. The restaurant Noma is actually located in Copenhagen, Denmark. Thanks to the commenter who pointed out the geographic error.

February 2014 Desktop Calendar

No I don't think that you should put me on your desktop for February : )  Continue reading and I will get to the calendar at the end of my tale.

During the sunny mild month of January I went to the California wine country with one of my good pals from my time as an undergraduate botany student at Miami University. We went to a number of lovely wineries that allowed us to walk around the vineyards with our glasses of wine. The vines were bare, both of fruit and leaves, but there were many wonderful shades of brown and the clouds were amazing! Since it was winter we were the only visitors at a number of the wineries in Sonoma and Alexander Valley. My favorite was the sparkling Pine Noir of Mumm Napa.  I would highly recommend checking out the wine country in the off-season.

We also went to see some redwoods at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. It was quiet and peaceful with these large giants early in the morning. And as you might have guessed they were covered in mosses. Unfortunately I didn't bring my camera on this trip and instead only had my cell phone, hence the photos don't have quite the resolution. Hopefully the sense of the landscape and the lushness of the mosses comes through in the calendar image for February below.

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.