Moss is a ubiquitous plant that often goes underappreciated and overlooked. As one of the first land plants, moss was able to spread across the entire globe. It’s now found on every continent including Antarctica, thanks to its ability to grow in Earth’s harshest environments. Moss loves to colonize new ground, so it commonly grows on rocks, brick walls, cracks in the sidewalk, and everything in between. Although moss isn’t the most diverse group of plants out there, there are still around 12,000 species! Some of the most common species can be found on multiple continents. In this article, we’ll go over more than 25 common types of moss and how to recognize them. But first, what even is moss?
What Is Moss?
Moss is in the division Bryophyta. As a type of Bryophyte, moss is a spore-producing nonvascular plant. Because vascular systems help plants stay rigid and grow upright, moss is typically very small and stays low to the ground. In addition, moss gets its water and nutrients by absorbing everything directly through its leaves, unlike vascular plants which have roots.
All mosses have the same general features, but there are two different growth habits – acrocarpous and pleurocarpous.
Acrocarpous mosses usually grow upright and don’t have branching stems, almost like miniature conifer trees. In addition, cells in the leaves of these mosses are usually square-shaped. Finally, their spore-producing parts, the sporophytes, arise at the end of the stems.
Pleurocarpous mosses have branching stems and often create dense mats on the ground. Their cells are typically very long compared to acrocarpous moss. Finally, their sporophytes arise from the side of stems.
Where Does Moss Grow?
No matter where in the world you are, there is a good chance moss is growing nearby. Moss is usually always found where there is some moisture because they dry out relatively easily. They also love to grow on poor substrate, so you often see them on exposed rock or disturbed soil. They can even remove impurities from soil! Moss is most commonly found in cool, humid environments like rainforests and near running water.
Can You Grow Moss?
Although the practice isn’t extremely popular, it is entirely possible to cultivate moss. Moss gardens are especially common in England and Japan. People grow moss as a ground cover due to its growth habit and ability to provide nutrients to the soil. Regardless of location, growing moss is easiest in moist, acidic soils and away from full sun. Alternatively, terrariums and rock gardens make a great place to grow moss in a controlled environment. Some people even use moss to create art!
Different Types of Moss
There are over 12,000 different species of moss, but we’ll only go over some of the most common types. Here are more than 25 types of moss and how to recognize them, sorted by their common names in no particular order.
Scientific name: Leucobryum glaucum
Color: Grayish-green leaves with dark brown stems at the base.
Distribution: Eastern North America and Europe.
Characteristics: The small stems are packed tightly together to create a pillow-like structure that can be up to two feet wide. This moss is typically more drought-resistant than others.
Scientific name: Dicranum scoparium
Color: Dark green stems and leaves.
Distribution: Native to North America
Characteristics: This species is also known as rock cap moss. It forms tightly packed tufts of foliage up to 8 cm high. The leaves are very characteristic, curving strongly in one direction.
Scientific name: Hypnum cupressiforme
Color: Dark green to brown.
Distribution: Found on every continent except Antarctica.
Characteristics: Because this moss is so widespread across the globe, it grows in many climatic conditions. It can grow on dead wood, tree branches, or directly on the soil. Sheet moss makes soft tufts of foliage wherever it grows.
Scientific name: Hypnum imponens
Color: Leaves are lime green, but can vary between green and yellow.
Distribution: Eastern US and Canada and northern Europe.
Characteristics: This moss has a stringy, shaggy look. It grows well in shade and does best in acidic soil.
Shiny Seductive Moss
Scientific name: Entodon seductrix
Color: Shiny, dark green leaves.
Distribution: Widespread across North America.
Characteristics: This moss created a shag carpet across rocks and rotting wood. Its spindly stems are covered in scale-like leaves.
Scientific name: Ceratodon purpureus
Color: Light golden-green leaves.
Distribution: Found on every continent, including Antarctica.
Characteristics: This moss gets its name from growing in recently burned environments. Plus, it has bright red stalks that produce spores.
Scientific name: Ptilium crista-castrensis
Color: Light green leaves with orange-colored stems.
Distribution: Very common in Canada and Northern Europe.
Characteristics: This moss creates soft, feather-like structures that give it its name. It typically forms dense ground cover on the forest floor.
Scientific name: Bryoandersonia illecebra
Color: New leaves are bright green, turning brown when older.
Distribution: Common in the US, but rare in Canada.
Characteristics: This moss has a creeping habit, spreading along rocks and creating dense mats of foliage. The tiny leaves completely cover the stem and look like scales.
Scientific name: Thuidium delicatulum
Color: Bright green and light brown.
Distribution: Common in North and South America and Europe.
Characteristics: As its name suggests, fern moss has leaves that look a bit like ferns. It grows fast and is commonly used in floral arrangements when dry.
Common Haircap Moss
Scientific name: Polytrichum commune
Color: Leaves are pale to bright green, while stems are reddish-brown.
Distribution: Very common across the western hemisphere.
Characteristics: This appealing moss is easy to recognize. It has wiry foliage all along the stems. When viewed from above, each stem looks like a star with lots of points. This moss can grow in virtually any habitat.
Common Peat Moss
Scientific name: Sphagnum centrale
Color: Yellow-green leaves that dry into a nice golden-brown.
Distribution: Found in the northern US, Canada, and Europe.
Characteristics: Common peat moss is one of many species of sphagnum moss. It grows exclusively in swamps and bogs. So, it does well in nutrient-poor, acidic soil. It holds moisture well and is commonly used in horticulture or in terrariums.
Warnstorf’s Peat Moss
Scientific name: Sphagnum warnstorfii
Color: Bright, vivid crimson red.
Distribution: Common in boreal regions of the US, Canada, and Europe.
Characteristics: Like other peat mosses, this species is found in bogs and fens. The bright red color is unmistakable for any other moss.
Baby Tooth Moss
Scientific name: Plagiomnium cuspidatum
Color: Light green leaves and stems with dark orange spore-producing stalks.
Distribution: Found across North America, Africa, and Asia.
Characteristics: This is a short-lived moss. Stems are sprawling and flat, with conspicuous midribs on the leaves.
American Tree Moss
Scientific name: Climacium americanum
Color: Leaves start out pale green and turn a dark olive green color when mature. Stems are reddish-brown.
Distribution: Widespread across the eastern US and Canada. It grows in a variety of habitats including woodlands, wetlands, swamps, and rocky soil.
Characteristics: As its name suggests, this moss is densely branched and resembles a tiny forest of trees.
Scientific name: Polytrichum juniperinum
Color: Green with a distinct red-brown tip.
Distribution: This species grows on every continent on Earth!
Characteristics: This moss has upright stems that look like trees. It grows well in exposed locations.
Scientific name: Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus
Color: Dark green leaves and reddish-brown stems.
Distribution: Common across temperate Northern Hemisphere.
Characteristics: The name is very appropriate due to the messy, unkempt look of this moss. The stems are long with variable, fuzzy leaves.
Scientific name: Racomitrium canescens
Color: Dark green to light brown when dry.
Distribution: Common in the US, Canada, and Europe.
Characteristics: This moss is incredibly drought tolerant and grows best on well-drained, sandy soil. It forms dense mats with upright, star-shaped stems.
Scientific name: Tortula ruralis
Color: Dark green to yellow-green.
Distribution: Widespread across North America and Europe.
Characteristics: Also called screw moss, this species gets its name from its star-shaped stem. It’s commonly used in terrariums and vivariums, being that it’s relatively easy to grow.
Heath Star Moss
Scientific name: Campylopus introflexus
Color: Yellowish to olive green.
Distribution: Native to temperate South America, Africa, and Australia. Introduced in Europe and western North America.
Characteristics: This moss spreads extensively, creating dense carpets that grow fast. The stems are slender with silver-colored tips.
Scientific name: Callicladium haldanianum
Color: Light green and golden brown.
Distribution: Eastern US and Canada and northern Europe.
Characteristics: This moss grows as flat, extensive carpets. It often covers the forest floor or fallen logs.
Springy Turf Moss
Scientific name: Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus
Color: Pale green leaves and a red stem.
Distribution: Widespread through temperate Northern Hemisphere, and introduced to the Southern Hemisphere.
Characteristics: Commonly found in grass and lawns. It forms a spindly mat of branching stems that can extend up to 15 cm (6 inches) tall. Each leaf is bent at a 90-degree angle.
Ribbed Bog Moss
Scientific name: Aulacomnium palustre
Color: Yellow-green leaves and orange-brown stems.
Distribution: Common across the Northern Hemisphere including the Arctic, and occasionally in South America, Australia, and New Zealand.
Characteristics: As its name suggests, this is a common moss in bogs and wetlands. Its upright stems get narrower towards the tips.
Glittering Wood Moss
Scientific name: Hylocomium splendens
Color: Olive green leaves and a reddish stem.
Distribution: Northern Hemisphere temperate and boreal forests.
Characteristics: This moss shimmers in the light and turns brown in the fall. Its feathery stems and leaves can grow to be up to 20 cm long, quite large for a moss!
Common Tamarisk Moss
Scientific name: Thuidium tamariscinum
Color: Bright yellow-green leaves.
Distribution: Common in Europe, but can also be found in North America and Japan.
Characteristics: This moss has delicate, lacy leaves. Its appearance resembles a fern more than a moss.
Common Smoothcap Moss
Scientific name: Atrichum undulatum
Color: Dark grey-green with a silver shine.
Distribution: Common across Europe, North America, and Japan.
Characteristics: This moss has star-shaped stems with long, pointy leaves. Also known as Catherine’s moss.
Dwarf Haircap Moss
Scientific name: Pogonatum aloides
Color: Reddish-green leaves and a red stem.
Distribution: Native to Europe.
Characteristics: This short moss has leaves that grow in a rosette formation, resembling tiny aloe plants. The tips are tinged with a reddish-brown color.
Rigid Beard Moss
Scientific name: Didymodon rigidulus
Color: Dark orange-green leaves that turn brown with age.
Distribution: Native to North and South America and Europe.
Characteristics: This moss has tiny leaves that clump together and form dense, stringy mats. It mostly grows on rocks, sidewalks, and other exposed stone.
There are many moss “imposters.” These are plants that superficially look like mosses, but are actually different plants (or fungi) entirely.
Liverworts and hornworts are other types of bryophytes but aren’t true mosses. They are closely related though, and just like moss they lack a vascular system and reproduce through spores.
Spikemosses and clubmosses aren’t true mosses either. They aren’t even bryophytes at all, as they have a vascular system.
Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is another moss imposter. This one isn’t a spore-producing plant at all. In fact, it’s a type of flowering plant in the same family (Bromeliaceae) as pineapples!
Lichen often gets mistaken as being moss. One type of which is reindeer moss, also called reindeer lichen. It forms puffy, light green mats that look just like moss.
Irish Moss is another imposter. It’s actually a type of red algae – not even a green plant!
Moss in Your World
Many species of moss, including many in this list, are found all over the world. Their utility has been implemented all over the world as well. Many different moss varieties are excellent choices for terrariums, moss lawns, green roofs, or other applications. Now that you know over 25 types of moss, try identifying them in the field or growing them yourself!