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What is Moss? - Definition, Types & Characteristics

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

In this lesson, we will explore a unique category of plants known as mosses. You'll learn what a moss is and their common characteristics as well as different types of mosses.

Early Colonizers

When you think about characteristics of plants, what comes to mind? If you said roots, leaves, and stems, you're only right for some plants! There are several related types of plants that have no true roots, stems, or leaves. One such plant category is moss. Mosses are a type of bryophyte, which is a group of non-vascular plants. This means they lack the vascular tissue, known as xylem and phloem, that most plants have for transporting water from roots to leaves and stems. Instead, mosses have rhizoids, small hair-like appendages that anchor the moss and take in water. As a result, mosses grow low and flat along the ground because they do not have the support system necessary to grow upwards.

However, lack of vascular tissue does not seem to hamper them much! Mosses are able to grow in many areas that other plants cannot, such as on rocks, fallen logs, and areas with no soil or poor quality soil. Thanks to their hardy nature, mosses are often early colonizers of bare areas, growing there before other, more complex plants can move in. Mosses are incredibly common, with more than 12,000 species found all over the world, with the exception of saltwater areas.

Moss lacks vascular tissue and has to grow flat along the ground.
Clump moss

Types of Moss

Despite the huge number of species, mosses can be grouped into a few general categories, based on where and how they grow. The first overarching group is sheet moss. Mosses in this group grow along the ground in carpets. If you wanted to grab this type of moss, you could pull it up from the ground in large, flat sections. Sheet moss tends to be a bright emerald green color, and it is often used in gardens to cover areas where grass won't easily grow. Some species in this group are quite flat with very short upward shoots. Others, known as fern mosses, are a bit taller and have leafier, fern-like shoots.

Another type is cushion moss. Instead of growing in carpets, cushion moss grows in smaller, rounder clumps that resemble seat cushions (hence the name!). Cushion moss grows well in sandy areas.

Hair cap moss is taller than either of the previous types. It sends longer shoots upwards in fluffy tufts, much like fern mosses. Hair cap moss has longer rhizoids than other mosses, more closely resembling true roots. These keep it anchored firmly in place.

One other type of moss is rock cap moss. As you might guess from the name, rock cap moss grows well on top of rocks. It is mainly found in heavily shaded areas. In fact, moss like this can get sunburned if exposed to direct sunlight for more than a few minutes!

Note: you may have heard of reindeer moss, which can be either gray or green and grows in clumps. Despite its name, reindeer mosses are not true mosses. They are lichens, which are created by a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi. You may have also heard of Spanish moss, which is grey and grows down from tree branches. These too, are not true mosses. They are actually something called air plants (they grow on top of trees, hence the name) that surprisingly belong to the same plant family as pineapples!

Hair cap moss grows taller than other varieties.
Hair cap moss

Common Characteristics

All mosses share a few common characteristics, including their lack of roots and vascular tissue. Mosses do not reproduce using flowers or seeds. Instead, they send up shoots and produce spores.

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