Last week I got to chat to the kids in my Wild+free group about moss and lichens. I am far from being any kind of expert on the subject, but I do have an enthusiastic interest and was able to teach the kiddos a few fun facts about these fascinating organisms. I have learned some really interesting things about moss and lichens and think it makes for a wonderful nature study for Autumn. We took a walk through our local wetlands preserve on a cold and damp Autumn day. I wanted to make sure we could do this lesson before the snow arrives because it makes it harder to find moss.
I recommend taking your children to an area that has lots of moss and/or lichens and going on a “hunt.” Find books and pages in your nature reference books about the different types of moss and lichens first. Then as you go on your nature walk, try to find various kinds. If you are unsure about proper identification, I recommend using the “Picture This” app that can help identify plants.
I printed and laminated these free moss and lichen reference cards from Raising Up Wild Things, which were really helpful to look at in the forest. If you have any wetlands near you, that is a great place to hunt for moss!
Here is a short lesson you can share with your children about moss and lichens. These are all fun and interesting facts that I thought the children would enjoy. You could take this lesson much further with more in-depth reading, watching YouTube videos, viewing moss and lichens under a microscope, growing your own moss garden at home…
Lets start with learning a bit about moss…
What is moss?
Moss is a very simple type of plant that does not have conventional roots, stems or leaves.
Where to find moss
Moss is usually quite hardy and grows almost everywhere, except under the sea. It is most commonly found in moist shady locations. Look for moss on trees, logs on the ground, and rocks. Moss is only found growing in clean air and will be rare to see it growing in a polluted city.
How is moss beneficial to its environment?
Moss is not parasitic to the surface that it lives on. It actually benefits the plants around it because it holds in lots of water and nutrients. Moss is like a sponge and can absorb up to 20 times its weight in liquid! Because of this, it can help control soil erosion by providing a surface cover that absorbs water.
How Moss can be used
Besides being used to help control soil erosion, moss has been used for various things for hundreds of years. In WW1 moss was used as bandages because they help with blood loss and can even soothe infections because of their antibacterial properties.
Dried moss has also been used as insulation in homes and fresh moss was used to line winter boots. In ancient times, people around the world even used moss to line diapers for babies!
Who eats moss?
Many animals just nibble on moss, because it contains moisture but does not eat it as a main food source.
Caribou and reindeer do feed on a plant called caribou moss, but it is not actually a moss, but a lichen.
Animals use moss mainly as a lining for their nests and dens because it is so soft and provides wonderful bedding material.
Now lets learn a bit about lichens...
What is a lichen?
Lichen is not a plant but actually a symbiotic relationship between fungus algae and yeast. These three are all living organisms that grow together and is mutually beneficial for all. (Like a partnership.) Lichens do not harm the trees they grow on!
There are three main groups of lichens- CRUSTOSE, FOLIOSE, AND FRUTICOSE
Crustose are thin and crust-like and look like peeling paint on rocks and tree branches.
Foliose are leaf-life
Fruticose look like tiny shrubs
An easy to identify lichen is USNEA
Usnea is also known as Old Man’s Beard and has a nickname of Lungs Of The Forest. It has powerful and useful medicinal properties.
Where to find usnea
You can find usnea growing on the bark of trees, mainly conifers. Remember conifers= cone or pine-cone. Trees that have pine-cones! Lichens will not thrive in polluted areas, so search for this lichen in forests far from the city.
How to identify usnea
The easiest way to identify usnea is to gently pull apart the strands to see if there is a stretchy white core in the center. Usnea is the only lichen with a white core.
How to use usnea
Usnea has powerful antibiotic and antiviral properties and can help boost your immune system. It works wonders for the respiratory system and helps with sinus infections, colds, flu, bronchitis etc. You can make an usnea tincture to take advantage of those respiratory and immune system benefits. (A tincture is a concentrated herbal extract made by soaking the bark, berries, leaves or roots from a plant in alcohol. You can take droppers of this concentrated medicine under your tongue or in a glass of water or juice). You can also make a poultice out of usnea, just like moss. A poultice is typically made of plant material and applied to the body to relieve soreness and inflammation and kept in place with a cloth.
Head out to the forest and search for as many types of moss and lichens as you can find! If you find any lichens on fallen branches, take a bit home with you to add to your nature shelf! Or perhaps you want to forage for some usnea to make a tincture of your own. Just remember to always forage responsibly!
YouTube video recommendations:
The Hidden Superpowers of Moss (talks about how the military used moss in WW1)
If you enjoyed this post, make sure you check out…