Believed to have evolved from green algae, mosses are a primitive form of plant, also considered a microflora. They’re characterized by small root structures, along with stems and leaves so tiny you need a magnifying glass to see them. Some only grow to a millimeter in height.
Mosses are found in almost every area of the world, especially California, surviving very extreme climates. This is because their simple structure and low nutrient requirements make it easy for mosses to thrive in places where other plants can’t grow. However, mosses are also extremely sensitive to changes in the environment because of pollutants.
Mosses are a tremendous benefit to the ecosystem because they enrich the soil they grow in, holding many times their own weight in water. Moss on the forest floor can be home to many small creatures, including mites, springtails and rotifers. A seabird called the marbled murrelet uses moss mats for its nests.
Although largely harmless, moss does have a tendency to collect on rooftops, retaining enough water to prevent a roof from drying out. This dampness will lift and curl shingles until the moss is removed. Also, although it looks pretty, when moss begins to grow in your planters at home, it can affect the health of the plant. As moss covers the top layer of soil, it doesn’t allow your soil to breathe. It also creates a home for insects that can harm your plants.
Fungi are neither plants nor animals and belong to their own kingdom. Unable to produce food through photosynthesis, they absorb nutrients from living and dead animals and plants. For the most part, fungi are hidden inside a food source, revealing their location only when they develop mushrooms or other fruiting bodies. With the Artist’s fungus, for example, such fruiting bodies take the form of reddish-brown brackets.
Without realizing it, most of us use fungi every day. The obvious source is mushrooms, but some fungi are also used to create soy sauce and miso as well as other flavorings. Yeast we use to make bread rise, beer, wine and the antibiotic penicillin are also products of fungi. A fungus like acidophilus helps promote healthy digestion while bifidobacteria has anti-tumor qualities used in cancer treatments.
Fungi are an important part of the nutrient recycling process, breaking down dead organic matter and plant debris to allow the ecosystem to reabsorb nutrients. Without fungi to supply essential nutrients, some plants like pine trees and orchids wouldn’t grow. The fungi can also produce protective chemicals to help a plant repel bacteria.
Fungi also have a dark side, causing plant disease that results in billions of dollars of crop damage a year. Some fungi also produce toxins (mycotoxins) that can be fatal if eaten through contaminated foods. Some fungi cause minor skin infections like athlete’s foot or ringworm, while others, like the Candida albicans and Aspergillus species can even cause life-threatening infections. With fungi, we take the good with the bad. While some fungal parasites can actually help kill insects that damage crops, other fungi can cause considerable damage to crops as well. Overall, fungi does more good, being used as a source of food, medicine and also decomposers of dead material.
Moss and Fungi might be everywhere, but are easily overlooked. Taking the time to observe these unique forms of life can offer fascinating insight into the diversity of life itself.