Like many people, especially outdoorsy people, I find winters difficult. The long-dark cold nights and days where the sun never seems to rise fill me with dread every year as I know how they will effect my mood and energy levels. As someone who has a real passion for invertebrates and plants (birds really don't excite me in the same way at all), winter can be a quiet time. I needed to discover something to draw me out of the house, into the fresh air. I discovered bryophytes and they changed my life.
Bryophytes (mosses, liverworts and hornworts) are an often overlooked group and are sometimes described as 'lower plants'. They lack the vascularised structures found in flowering plants but are no less evolved or complicated, they are masters of survival and are a beauty to behold. When I tell people I am interested in mosses, they often tell me to come see their lawn or gutters and don't notice the diversity of bryophytes that we have in Britain and how special Britain is for these overlooked and underappreciated species.
One of the first mosses I remember spotting and really appreciating was the wall screw moss (Tortula muralis) which grows on the patio at home. Looking closely the tongue shaped leaves can be seen to twist and curl when dry, unfurling when wet. The leaves have a silver hair-point sticking out of the end and vibrant capsules, one of the ways in which bryophytes reproduce. How many years had I walked past these cushions without fully appreciating them?
I have had many adventures searching for bryophytes, climbing (or falling) down waterfalls, falling in bogs. Most bryophytes are fond of wet places and you sometimes have to get a bit wet to fully appreciate some of them, I am particularly accident prone though! One of the places I most enjoy visiting are Sphagnum bogs, they are phenomonal places and incredibly important for carbon sequestration. To misquote a well known song, I like big bogs and I cannot lie.
From the first steps of noticing the mosses growing on the patio, to now, I have now recorded over 230 species of bryophyte in Britain. This is just under a quarter of the native British species, so lots more to see! The identification of many species can be rather challenging but there are lots of people out there on social media which have helped me greatly and I have been rather fortunate to have spent some great days out with Rachel, the Northamptonshire county recorder, who has patiently helped me. The British Bryological society Twitter feed is a great place to see how wonderful bryophytes are and get help with ID.
I also feel that I am a better ecologist since I have noticed bryophytes more. The subtle differences in microhabitats stand out a lot more now. A small wet flush may be of little consequence to larger species, but may be the only area of a site where certain bryophytes can survive. Alongside invertebrates and vascular plants they can tell you so much about a site and its condition.
Woodland bryophytes for me really peaked my interest and you don't need to get wet to see them. Next time you go for a walk in the woods, take a moment to look at the ground and the number of different greens that you can spot there and the variety of different mosses. Take a look at the trees too and the mosses and liverworts adorning them. Near-horizonal branches can be especially rich in liverworts.
I am still daunted by the darkening days but know that there will be lots more to go and see and learn about these amazing species. In fact now I don't shut up about them all winter (as my partner Charlotte with confirm!). There is always more to see and learn about the natural world and I love that.