Getting to know the stuff growing on Adirondack boulders
By Tim Rowland
Prior to this past week, the only thing I knew about moss is that rolling stones don’t gather any. But the staggering monoliths we were inspecting during an early-June hike weren’t in condition to roll or do anything else, so they were bathed in luxurious green carpets of moss, along with lichen and liverwort.
These boulders, ranging from the size of an overstuffed chair to that of a travel trailer, rested at the base of the soaring cliffs of Poke-o-Moonshine, a popular mountain near Keeseville topped with a firetower that sits like a metallic cherry atop a mountainous sundae.
Our band of moss sleuths included Tom Phillips, Ruth Brooks and Ray Curran, who were scouting the grounds for an “Introduction to Bryophytes” workshop to be held July 28-30. Spaces are limited but are still available and can be reserved by visiting nyflora.org.
Tom, a retired veterinarian, will be leading the workshop, and his first question on our hike wasn’t about moss, it was about rocks. “What’s the geology?” he asked Ray, that being a fundamental driver of which mosses locate where.
As documented by Adirondack naturalist Jerry Jenkins, much of the forest floor’s flora is driven by things we don’t necessarily see, the flow of moisture, minerals and nutrients that provide the canvas on which the wilds are painted.
Tom said rocks can be acidic or calcareous, and mosses are choosy about which they populate.
Speaking for myself, I think of the Adirondacks as great and broad vistas of dramatic mountain ranges and unbroken forests, a chest-thumping tapestry of the grand and the mighty, what the great painters described as “awesome” before the word got turned into the verbal potato chip that it has become today.
Mosses are a wild descension into infinitesimal worlds whose doors are opened with a field guide and jeweler’s loupe. Here are fascinating kaleidoscopes of shapes, patterns, etchings and contrasts that are literally beneath our boots, unnoticed as a general thing as we stampede off to a summit. Our “hike,” all told, was probably no more than 50 yards, but so absorbing and varied was the adventure that it felt as if we had traveled a million miles.
Ray led us to a palatial, open-air cavern of sorts, formed by enormous boulders fallen from Poke-O’s cliffs, which were visible above us through gaps in a canopy of hardwoods struggling to gain a toehold in the rugged terrain.
Tom and Ruth began racking up scores, finding a wide variety of mosses, lichens and liverworts that dazzled under magnification. Although I suppose I knew that mosses, like trees, came in multiple varieties, where I would look at a forest and think “maple” or “hemlock,” I would look at a moss covered rock and think “moss.”
Not anymore. Tom began by showing me the Poodle moss (Anomodon attenuatus) that grows on limey rock, contrasting it with Dicranum fulvum (boulder broom moss) that prefers an acidic home. From a distance they are “moss.” Up close they look nothing alike. Both are beautiful.
Pointing out the beautiful rhodobryum, so named for the rose-like shape of its leaves, Ruth noted that the pursuit is also notable for its accessibility to people with unlimited mobility. Because I am a writer, Tom suspected I would enjoy Graphis scripta, a lichen that under magnification looks like handwriting in some foreign language.
And because I am a writer, words like “fulvum” and “anomodon” affect me like being hit in the melon with a blunt instrument. However, after returning home and bopping around on several moss-related websites I can report that, while not by any means conversant in these terms, an order does begin to emerge that will, I believe, improve with time. In other words, don’t let any Latinus phopius impede your enjoyment of these incredible species.