Miles and miles of soothing green extend all the way to the horizon, filling up your sight. It’s like endless green clouds resting on the ground, constantly shifting colours and shadows. The texture is so fine and exquisite that if you lick it, it may taste like green tea powder. Such is the wonder of the ethereal and breath-taking Icelandic moss heaths.
If you pay any attention while driving on the road in the Icelandic countryside, you will notice the cartoonish moss carpets over the never-ending lava fields. But have you ever wondered, what is their life story? How did moss come here, and how does it die?
Many years ago, a volcano erupted, spewing out molten lava that devoured everything that was in its way. As time passed, the lava cooled down and eventually became solid rocks. The lava field remained barren and dark for a long time, until the wind brought in some moss spores from elsewhere. The tiny moss spores landed on the lava field, and started to grow.
Living conditions and survival
Even though mosses are known for thriving in harsh environments, they still need a lot of water, above-zero temperatures and sunlight in order to grow and expand. If it’s too cold or too dry, they stay dormant and wait for better living conditions.
Ingibjörg Svala Jónsdóttir, Professor of Ecology at University of Iceland, has done extensive research on mosses and their environments. “There are 606 different species of mosses in Iceland,” she says One of the most abundant species is called the woolly fringe-moss, which dominates lava fields across South and West Iceland. “In contrast with higher plants, they don’t have a supporting system or root system, so they don’t grow very tall,” Ingibjörg explains. Instead mosses take in water and nutrients through their leaves, and at the same time they absorb sunlight for photosynthesis, turning carbon dioxide into organic food while generating oxygen as a by-product.
Reproduction and growth
Mosses are resilient little creatures, and they make sure to pass on the torch to the next generations in every way they can. They can reproduce both sexually and asexually. Just like many other plants, their sexual reproduction involves a female structure and a male structure. “After sexual reproduction they produce something called a sporophyte, which is actually growing on the moss plants,” Ingibjörg says. “Then many of them may produce a large number of spores that distribute like dust.”
Unlike humans, mosses can also reproduce asexually. If part of the stem or a leaf breaks off, it can regenerate and form a new individual plant. Even though they have different options for reproduction, mosses generally grow very slowly—about 1 centimeter in length every year.
After a wild and interesting life, when’s the time for mosses to leave the world? Interestingly, many of the moss species actually die and grow at the same time. According to Ingibjörg, “They grow at the top, but they also die at the low end, so in a way they can grow forever.” However, before we call moss the vampire of the plant world, we should also know that they are very sensitive to trampling by animals and humans.
As general advice for the public, Ingibjörg emphasises, “Always stay on the path when you’re hiking in a lava field because mosses often die after heavy trampling.” These fuzzy green plants help prevent soil erosion, retain water and humidity, and are actually home to many microorganisms. Mosses may look small, but they do wonders for the world.