Take some lessons and advice from a passionate mosser. How does moss grow? What are some bryophytes examples? And is moss really that great? Mossin’ Annie shares all this and more in her story of becoming a mosser.
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The ancient Latin writer who authored the proverb “A rolling stone gathers no moss” surely never met anyone like Annie Martin. A nonstop dynamo about her life’s passion, Martin gathers mosses with permission at every opportunity in her beloved Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina.
These opportunities occur as rescues that she says “drive my spirit, because otherwise the mosses will be destroyed.” Her rescue sites range from the typical tourist destination to the dangerous to the bizarre. There was the time a state forest ranger called to say a parking lot was going in and asked, “Would you like to collect the moss first?” (“Yes, sir! Thank you very much.”) She’s peeled moss off asphalt as drivers whizzed by, leaving her literally in their dust. (“That wouldn’t be spiritually invigorating to most people, but to me it was!”) And there have been many times she’s asked a homeowner, “Excuse me, but could I climb on your roof and collect the moss that’s growing there?” (“I’m just nervy enough to ask!”)
Meet Mossin’ Annie, a folk hero to Southern native-plant enthusiasts and a self-taught expert in perhaps the most taken-for-granted niche in the plant kingdom: moss. With no scientific education beyond elementary school, she left a media production career in 2008 with the daunting goal of turning a childhood fascination with bryophytes — the planet’s oldest and perhaps most obscure land plant group — into a profession and a business, Mountain Moss Enterprises. Operating from a mossery near downtown Brevard, North Carolina, and adhering to all U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Forest Service regulations, plus strict personal ethics (she adamantly cautions against harvesting mosses from protected forests and parks), Martin is a licensed plant collector and distributor. She taught herself about mosses through years of research into using mosses in cultivation and of hands-on gardening experience. Through a not-to-be-denied determination to expand her understanding of the artistic applications of mosses and their ecological benefits, she’s become a highly respected moss farmer, rescuer, educator, and author, and a much-sought-after moss landscape artist and consultant.
A Calling to the Mosses
The story of how Annie Martin, born Rachel Ann Martin in Asheville, North Carolina, became Mossin’ Annie begins when she was a child going on Sunday afternoon family picnics in the Pink Beds off the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Pisgah National Forest. Most people go there to enjoy the namesake pink flowers of mountain laurel and rhododendron. Martin noticed the mosses.
“But at the time, I was like everybody else,” she says of her introduction to moss. “I thought, ‘It’s just moss.'” She wouldn’t think that way for long, thanks to her pet chameleon, Oscar. “I thought moss would make a good ground cover in his terrarium, so I used it for his little home.” This was in the 1960s, when she was 10. Oscar’s terrarium led to moss terrariums that led to collecting forest driftwood and turning it into moss art (learn about moss art and kokedama care to brighten up your own spaces).
Her destiny with moss was sealed. But destiny took a detour. First, there was college — the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and graduate school at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina — and a career — two-plus decades of producing and directing media, including as head of the production and presentation department for Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. After Emory, she returned to the mountains to produce media for Brevard College and then worked in a print shop. She was “home,” but something was missing: moss. And that led to an “aha!” moment.
“I decided I was going to follow my dream and my heart. So, I changed my life and started this business,” she says. In a way, that was a natural progression of what she was doing at home. “I had already started introducing mosses into my landscape, because waiting for them to grow in was not suiting me!” She dumped dirt across her driveway, transformed a carport into an outdoor living space, and ripped out the previous owner’s landscaping. In the front yard and side yards and on top of the driveway, she installed a moss garden by integrating species of Thuidium, Hypnum, Climacium, Atrichum, Rhodobryum, Polytrichum, and Dicranum with liverwort species, such as Bazzania. One of the highlights of her design is a spectacular clear quartz crystal centerpiece — she insists every moss garden needs a focal point — that she bought from a rockhound. Since it’s composed of large crystals and many small crystal points, she calls it her “spirit crystal, because it captures sunlight and beams its good energy” across her mosses.
Martin loved her moss garden, but having to peek out a window to see it didn’t suit her any better than waiting for mosses to grow naturally. What she wanted was to bring the outdoors into her living space to enjoy her mosses 24/7. Something had to go. That turned out to be a charming stone chimney and fireplace, the reasons she’d bought the house in the first place. She replaced them and an entire living room wall and corner with glass. The expansive windows gave her a great daytime view of the garden, but she wanted to see it at night too. That solution was much simpler: She installed floodlights.
How Does Moss Grow? With Moss Magic
“The magic of my moss garden is its year-round beauty,” Martin says, adding that mosses bring her delight and pleasure in all seasons because they keep their various shades of green throughout the year. Mosses, she explains, transmit light through their leaves, because the leaves of most species are only one cell layer thick. The single-layer leaves are translucent, with the ability to transmit light. In certain genera, such as Plagiomnium, this phenomena can give the moss the appearance of a neon glow, whether in sunlight, moonlight, or even artificial light sources. Sporophytes, the miniature equivalent of flowers in vascular plants, add red, orange, and other hues to the mosses’ color palette. A bonus is that mosses produce sporophytes regardless of temperature.
“My mosses are still reproducing even under a blanket of snow!” Martin says with a laugh. “Mosses don’t care how cold it is, because they have these phenolic compounds that make them immune to the effects cold has on vascular plants. In fact, moss can be inside an icicle and still look good. I sometimes feel bad for other gardeners in winter, because while they’re looking at dormant plants and lots of brown in mulch and pine needles, I’ve got gorgeous green.”
Other appeals of mosses are that they’re deer-resistant — the compounds that make them cold-resistant also give them a bad taste — and they’re environmentally friendly, because they prevent erosion and purify the air. Perhaps best of all, you don’t need a green thumb to grow them.
“You can ignore most of your gardening knowledge and use minimal guidelines to be successful with mosses,” says Martin. “You don’t have to worry about the quality of the soil. It’s mainly choosing the right species for the location and remembering all mosses are happiest when watered by Mother Nature or gardeners.” Luckily for home gardeners, she adds, there’s a moss for any microclimate or situation. That leads to another dig at vascular plants: “I do want to point out that mosses are 450 million years old. That’s 50 million years before any of the rest of the plant kingdom started on our planet!”
Unfortunately, Martin’s timing wasn’t good when she decided to plan and install moss gardens as a business. That was in 2008, during the middle of the Great Recession. She reached the one-year mark and was struggling financially. Then, she reached the two-year mark and was struggling even more.
“That’s when you’re supposed to give up. But I wouldn’t give up. I kept on going. I ended up selling some family treasures that were dear to my heart,” she says. “But you know what, you do what you have to do to keep your dream alive.” And it worked. Business started coming in. The jobs helped her gain recognition, but it was the 2015 publication of her book, The Magical World of Moss Gardening, that she says established her reputation in moss knowledge and expertise. The book is now in its third printing. But what thrills her most about the book is that it’s been translated into Japanese.
Somewhere along the way — she doesn’t remember when — she became Mossin’ Annie. “I have gone through a lot of name changes,” she says. “I grew up as ‘Ann,’ but my dance teacher called me ‘Rachel,’ then gave in and called me ‘Rachel Ann.’ A close friend who was an anchor at the Asheville ABC-TV affiliate was one of the first who called me ‘Annie.’ Then, I was ‘Purple Annie,’ because I wear purple all the time. When I became obsessed with moss, I became the ‘crazy moss lady.'” Then, it was “Mossin’ Annie,” and the name stuck.
Enjoying a Mosser’s Life
What brings her the most enjoyment from being Mossin’ Annie are moss rescues and moss creation.
“They’re neck and neck. The rescue is the first part of the equation. I’m more fascinated with that than cultivation, because so many mosses go un-rescued,” she says. “I’ve watched [the Department of Transportation] mow away miles and miles of it. When I see moss growing on the roofs of picnic sheds or bathrooms that I know are going to be replaced, it hurts my feelings if [park rangers] don’t call me.” She’s even asked roofers to alert her when they see moss on top of houses. “I have an almost parental need to embrace mosses and give them another chance at life. That’s why I’m so adamant about them being used in landscapes.”
Like rescues, Martin has special memories of landscapes she’s installed. Her favorite is an almost-10-year ongoing residential project in Cashiers, North Carolina.
“My most memorable occasion at this site was when I planted sun-tolerant moss species (Ceratodon, Entodon, and Atrichum) in cracks of a stone path with a small hammer. It was December, temperatures were well below freezing, and winds were brutal, with gusts up to 60 mph. I could hear them rumbling across the valley and then felt the frigid blasts. I was so cold. But my spirits were soaring. I started singing, ‘If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning … I’d hammer my mosses all over this land.’ For some reason, I thought the louder I sang, the warmer I might get. When I returned in January, all the mosses were doing great, and the moss was displaying impressive crimson sporophytes, a definite sign the mosses were thriving. My favorite commercial project is at the base of a waterfall at a summer camp in the same area. Even weeding is a pleasure.”
Instead of an office surrounded by walls and a roof, Martin considers mountain forests, valleys, stream banks, roads, and the sky above to be her workplace. She exults in being alone with mosses, she says, because they feed her soul. When her workday ends, she heads home to her beautiful moss garden. Once there, she often can’t wait for darkness to fall.
“I love to dance in my moss garden, especially under the full moon. It could be ‘a marvelous night for a moon dance,'” she sings. “I have fun. Life is good as a mosser.”
Bryophytes: Examples of Mossin’ Annie’s Favorite Mosses
Successful moss gardening is like smart home buying. “Location, location, location,” says Mossin’ Annie, who emphasizes picking the right moss for the right place. “Choosing moss species for your garden project should first be guided by appropriate species for the sun exposure — shade, sun, or partial sun conditions. Then, you consider preferred substrate, moisture factors, and purpose, such as solving erosion issues.” Here are some of Mossin’ Annie’s top choices for moss species for different gardening situations.
Gardeners often refer to plants by their common names. That’s not a good idea when it comes to mosses, advises Mossin’ Annie. For one thing, she says, most mosses don’t have common names. And when they do, those names can vary from region to region. For another, plants that have moss as part of their common name often aren’t mosses. This can create confusion, because these plants don’t perform like true bryophytes (mosses).
Here are some examples of “mosses” that are neither mosses nor bryophytes. Mossin’ Annie calls them “moss fakers.”
Reindeer moss (Cladonia rangiferina). This is a lichen that’s a favorite food of reindeer (caribou) on the Arctic tundra. It can be white, gray, or light-green, and it dots roadsides and forest floors in the United States. Over time, it worked its way down the Appalachian Mountains, with some species occurring as far south as Florida. Some colonies can grow quite large, reaching the size of basketballs. Other Cladonia species are much smaller. For example, C. evansii, which can be found on the North Carolina coast, looks like little cotton balls.
Gold moss stonecrop (Sedum acre). This is a mat-forming succulent. It does well in rock gardens and containers, where it can spill over the sides and make an attractive display. However, Mossin’ Annie cautions against mixing sedums with mosses. “I consider sedums invasive, aggravating plants in a moss garden,” she says. “They’ll crowd out existing moss species and overtake mosses.” In temperate climates with cold temperatures, she adds, they typically don’t look good in winter, though they’ll bounce back in spring.
Irish moss (Chondrus crispus). This is an algae that got its name during the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1800s, when people scraped it off coastal rocks and used it for food. It’s also found on the Atlantic coasts of the U.S. and Europe. But, Mossin’ Annie advises, there’s another more confusing issue in the U.S.: “The terms ‘Irish moss’ and ‘Scotch moss’ are terms retail garden centers use for Sagina species. They look a lot like Dicranum and Polytrichum bryophytes but are vascular plants that have roots and little white flowers. This is the biggest moss faker, because people think that they’re buying moss, not realizing Irish and Scotch ‘moss’ aren’t ‘mosses’ at all!”
Club moss (family Lycopodiaceae). This is a large group of vascular plants, often lycopods, that grow in forests. Lycopodium clavatum is the most widespread species in the club moss family. “Lycopods do reproduce via spores that appear on structures at the top of the plants,” says Mossin’ Annie. “But they’re not bryophytes.”
Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides). This is a bromeliad, in the same taxonomic family as pineapples. It grows as an epiphyte, which means it uses another plant for support but doesn’t feed off that plant. “In the Deep South, it can often be seen draping from the branches of live oak trees like tendrils of white-grayish hair,” says Mossin’ Annie.
Spike moss (family Selaginellaceae). This is a Selaginella. There are many species of spike moss, which have feathery green foliage that’s reproduced by spores and can spread into large mats. “In the forest, ‘spike moss’ resembles true mosses more than any of the other moss fakers included in this list,” says Mossin’ Annie.
Learn more about Mossin’ Annie and mosses and purchase her book The Magical World of Moss Gardening on her website, Mountain Moss.
Tom Oder is an independent journalist living in Atlanta, Georgia, who writes about gardening, the environment, and agribusiness.