BLM Botanists learn how the smallest mosses and lichens may be crucial to our equation for healthy forests.
story by Trish Hogervorst
photos by John Craig & Scott Batchelar
After one of the wettest springs in the history of the Pacific Northwest, hikers, bikers, horseback riders, and sightseers will strike out across back country roads and trails to enjoy their public lands.
And while many will stop to admire majestic old growth trees arching to blue skies next to gorgeous technicolor flowers, how many will also take the time to study our less heralded mosses and lichens?
First, let's review. You might be thinking, "Um...I know I know this. But what's a moss again?" Right? No problem. Perhaps a bit too simply, a moss is a plant with a stem and leaf but no eye-catching flower. Not the best for a Valentine's Day bouquet. But a necessary part of the Northwest ecosystem all the same.
And a lichen? Well, they're practically the cyborg of the botany world. Lichens are actually a fungus growing symbiotically with algae. And unlike our fuzzy mosses, lichens tend to be found on rocks and tree trunks with a tell-tale crusty appearance. Also not carried by your local florist. But they're tough, man. Yeah. Take that, tulips!
And while many folks this summer may find admiring a blooming flower to come more, well, "naturally," only a few will examine individual mosses and lichens as closely as some BLM botanists who recently spent a week at the BLM's Salem District studying with two foremost experts on the topic.
The Mossman Cometh
Enter Dr. David Watner of the University of Oregon and president of the Northwest Botanical Institute and Roxy Hastings, curator of Botany at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, Alberta. Dr. Watner and Ms. Hastings were invited by BLM botanist Ron Exeter to teach a course on the finer points of the aforementioned mosses and lichens. Their four-day class took place entirely in a makeshift lab at the Salem BLM office as their students studied moss variations under microscopes.
Fortunately for the BLM, Dr. Wagner is the western United States expert on Racomitrium mosses. (Say that five times fast.) "Racomitrium mosses live on rocks from sea level to alpine slopes," said Dr. Wagner. "There are 20 Racomitrium species in Oregon. Some are common, others are very rare. Mosses have the ion exchange capacity of scavenging minerals from rainfall and rare elements from the atmosphere that other plants can't extract. This makes them a keystone in the growth of Northwest forests."
So mosses pull necessary natural deposits from the rain and local atmosphere and put them into the ecosystem. Yes. And without these scavenger mosses? The forest might not receive its necessary rations to thrive and survive.
May I see your library card?
This kind of in-depth study of mosses is relatively new. After the Federal Northwest Forest Plan, Dr. Wagner spent countless hours inventorying BLM lands to determine what mosses inhabit the diverse landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. He collected thousands of samples of moss and even set up moss sample "libraries" for students to study. Frequently, the variation between one species of Racomitrium and another may be nothing more than the thickness of a cell wall or the symmetry between cells.
Not to be upstaged, Roxy Hastings is the North American expert on Grimmia mosses. These mosses are generally found on acidic rocks east of the Cascades – most frequently in the Rocky Mountains. Ms. Hastings began her studies in zoology and geography before focusing on botany. Her knowledge of geography has been particularly helpful in cataloging locations of moss species. By identifying acidic rocks in ancient North American sea beds, Ms. Hastings is able to pinpoint where certain species of Grimmia are most likely to be concentrated based on their relationship to the local environment. And just like Dr. Wagner, Ms. Hastings is learning that mosses are a crucial member of their local environment – as well as necessary to the ongoing health of that ecosystem.
And a box of chocolates
So the next time you explore BLM lands, or perhaps even your own back yard, maybe take a few moments to study the vast array of mosses and lichens clinging to rocks and trees. Each new area can deliver a different species – and a single rock or log may contain a colorful bouquet of diverse mosses and lichens. A bouquet? Heck, maybe mosses and lichens will someday be popular enough for Valentine's Day after all...
Check us out online for more info on the BLM's mission to preserve Oregon's cultural heritage.