This week, my guest is Dr Neil Bell, bryologist at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and author of The Hidden World of Mosses, which takes a look into the minute and fascinating world of bryophytes. 

If you’ve ever wanted to know how these plants live and reproduce, whether you can cultivate moss indoors or outdoors, what that green stuff is you find on the surface of potted plant’s compost and whether you should take it off, the environmental and habitat value of mosses and how they are affected by the moon, listen on…

Dr Ian Bedford’s Bug of the Week: Tardegrades

What We Talk About 

What is moss? How is it different to other plants?

Liverworts and hornworts

How mosses reproduce

Moss species in the UK

Cultivating mosses in a garden or as a houseplant

Liverworts growing on the surface of potted plants

Is there a place for mosses on brownfield sites?

Do all mosses need shade and moisture?

How mosses take in nutrients and attach to structures

The role mosses play in the environment in terms of water attenuation and conservation, and as habitats for other creatures

Sphagnum bogs as a ‘potential positive feedback loop’ for climate change and what can be done about this

The connection between sphagnum moss and the moon

How you can better see mosses, to explore what they look like in detail and appreciate them

About The Hidden World of Mosses

Did you know that there are nearly 20,000 different species of mosses and their relatives worldwide with over 1000 in the UK? And did you know that Sphagnum moss is almost wholly responsible for the creation and maintenance of peat bogs, preventing harmful carbon from being released into the atmosphere?

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh has published The Hidden World of Mosses, providing an accessible guide to these not-so-humble botanical gems. Written by bryologist Dr Neil Bell, the book presents information about these incredible plants, exploring their tiny, intriguing and diverse environments in detail. This fascinating book also contains hundreds of stunning photographs which reveal the beauty and splendour of moss.

Perhaps the most misunderstood and misrepresented of all groups of organisms, moss is often thought of as unattractive and unremarkable, but nothing could be further from the truth. Mosses and their relatives (liverworts and hornworts) are found in almost every part of the world, from lush forests to rocky mountains tops and from city centres in the tropics to Antarctic tundra. Mosses are critical to the planet – if they ceased to exist tomorrow the world would be in a lot of trouble.

Examining the many different types of moss, including those found in the UK and internationally, The Hidden World of Mosses explores the incredible environments of these plants that form their own miniature forests filled with grazers and predators, and have their own ecological norms and mechanics. They play a critical role in climate change prevention and have an extraordinary ability to hold and control water in forests, uplands and valleys.

Incredibly, some mosses can hold more than 20 times their own weight in water. Peat mosses (Sphagnum) are almost entirely responsible for creating and maintaining peat, which is a traditional fuel and used for the flavour it imparts to many whiskies. Sphagnum moss keeps the soil in which it grows permanently wet, largely preventing decomposition.Interestingly, Sphagnum moss has also been used by medics over the centuries. Due to its absorbent and antiseptic properties, it was used as a cheaper alternative to cotton wool dressings in World Wars One and Two, and has been used to treat wounds for many years.

On tropical mountains, mosses prevent flooding by capturing large amounts of water, gently controlling the flow of heavy rainfall, absorbing it like a giant sponge and then slowly letting it out again into rivers in a regulated manner. Additionally, mosses offer hunting grounds, protection and food for a host of much smaller creatures such as worms, mites, spiders and beetles, who use moss as a place to shelter, graze, or reproduce.

Speaking about the publication of The Hidden World of Mosses, Neil Bell said, “Mosses are just a little smaller than most things we deal with in our everyday lives, so we tend not to notice their intricate beauty and how different they are from each other unless we make the effort to look really closely. Mosses and their relatives have evolved to live in a different way from other plants, playing a critical role in the environment that other plants can’t, and the mosses and liverworts we have in Scotland are of international significance – far more so than our other native plants, in fact. We need to recognise that and protect them. I hope that this book will raise awareness of this hidden botanical world and encourage more people to explore it .”

Dr Neil Bell is a bryologist at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.  Much of his research is focused on quantifying, understanding and promoting Scotland’s globally important bryophyte flora, of which mosses are part.  Neil is also editor-in-chief of the Journal of Bryology.  This year, the British Bryology Society celebrates its centenary. 

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is one of the world’s leading scientific botanic gardens, holding knowledge gained over centuries that the world needs today.  All known life depends on plants and fungi. The Garden’s mission is to explore, conserve and explain the world of plants for a better future. We all know biodiversity loss and climate change is threatening thousands of plants with extinction. Through cutting edge science, conservation and education, the organisation is helping to save them.  Its four Scottish gardens – Benmore, Dawyk, Logan and ‘The Botanics’ in Edinburgh – attract over a million visitors every year. Together, these gardens comprise one of the richest plant collections on earth. As a registered Scottish charity, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is funded principally by the Scottish Government – but as an organisation, it is very much global, taking positive action for plants and people around the world – from local communities in Scotland, to over 40 countries overseas.


The Hidden World of Mosses by Dr Neil Bell

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