Beautiful bunch of moss flowers
These beautiful bunches of ‘flowers’ caught my eye during a permissible daily exercise session, otherwise known as a walk, on 7 April 2020. Although the location, to the east of Loch Ruighean an Aitinn near Drumbeg, is only a 30-minute walk from home I’d never noticed them before.
Of course, given that each head is only 2-3mm across and they won’t look so stunning all the time, I can forgive myself. Their size means they wouldn’t really make much of a gift for your partner, and I’m pretty sure you would not be thanked for a bunch of moss anyway!
Recognising that they were part of a ‘moss’ and because I hadn’t seen them before I took a few photographs thinking, like we are all guilty of from time to time, that they might be quite rare!
So, moss was as far as I could take it in terms of identification. Fortunately, not far away, at Nedd, there lives an all-round naturalist, Ian Evans, who along with his late wife Pat and bryologist Gordon Rothero co-authored the Flora of Assynt
Ian never complains, as far as I know, when I send him batches of photos of things I can’t identify, so a couple of hours later half a dozen images landed in his inbox.
The best thing anyone interested in natural history can do is to admit when they don’t know or are not sure. Keeps the records straight, so to speak. Ian could tell it was a moss belonging to the genus Polytrichum, the haircaps, but wasn’t sure which species and couldn’t recollect the purpose of the red ‘flowers’.
Now I’ll hand you over to Ian who can fill in the missing details and how he confirmed things!
All expertise is relative, and since Gordon Rothero, who is a really expert bryologist, started making regular visits to Assynt back in 1992, my role on field trips has been to act as his scribe. I make a running list of his finds, assign grid references, and note any other, incidental, aspects of the local wildlife. So, I sent David’s pictures straight to Gordon, and had a name within the day. A close look at the ordinary leaves in the pictures, beneath the ‘flowers’, reveals that they bear long white hair points, a diagnostic character of the bristly haircap Polytrichum piliferum.
Gordon decribes this species in the bryophyte section of the Flora as found ‘in a variety of dry sites on open, gravelly or sandy soils, tops of boulders and walls, and extending to the tops of the hills’. Not rare, but quite choosy where it grows.
He also commented in his reply that ‘the massed perigonia are always a temptation for the camera’, which gives us the technical term for the ‘flowers’. They are in fact rosettes of modified leaves at the tops of the male shoots which shelter the male reproductive organs or antheridia. Separate shoots, growing amongst the males, bear the complementary female organs, archegonia, each of which, when fertilised, eventually produces the alternate generation of the moss, or sporophyte, in the form of a capsule on a long stalk or seta, also shown in the photos. The capsule is protected by a pointed cap or calyptra, which is shed when the spores are ripe. This cap has a thick coat of hairs, hence both the English and scientific names of the genus (Polytrichum = many hairs).
A complicated story, taking me way back to sixth form biology lessons, but such beautiful objects when you take a closer look, as did David.
By amazing coincidence another Field Club member, Gwen Richards, was recently photographing the very same moss flowers in her garden at Torbreck. Gwen’s photos show the male ‘flowers’ with dense clusters of antheridia.
David Haines and Ian M. Evans
[An explanation of the first sentence in this article should you happen to be reading it several years from now. At the date mentioned the whole country, and most of the world was in ‘lockdown’ due to a pandemic of Covid-19 or Coronavirus. To prevent the spread of the virus people were instructed to socially distance themselves and only go out for some exercise once a day.]