Bryomonitoring Canada

How to

Spot Your Moss: Identifying the correct moss species

Learn how to identify the common mosses Hylocomium splendens (stair-step moss) and Pleurozium schreberi (red-stemmed feather moss).  You’ll be able to spot them in no time!  You can sample one or the other (or both).

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Stair-step moss

Hylocomium splendens

Description

Stair-step moss appears “fern-like” with many small branches covered in more tiny branches.  It ranges from 5-20 cm long.  Each year’s growth emerges from the top of the previous year’s growth at a 90° angle – just like stair steps!

Its colour ranges from yelow-green to olive green with a red stem.  For more details on its form and habitat, see the British Bryological Society’s field guide.

Stair-step moss
Photo: Wikipedia commons
A beard of stair-step moss growing on a stone wall.
Photo: Phaedra Cowden

Where to find it

Colonies can be found growing in loose mats on the ground, on downed trees or rocks.

Gallery

Have a look at a few different images.  Sometimes mosses can look a bit different depending on their growth conditions!  The iNaturalist page has lots of additional images.

Thuidium delicatulum

Watch out for the similar-looking fern moss:

Fern moss
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

However, fern moss:

  • Does not grow in the stair step growth form
  • Does not have a red stem

In arctic and alpine regions, this moss lacks the stair-step growth form and instead grows in a single erect stem (which is an adaptation to the harsher climates typical to these regions).

Stair-step moss in the arctic
Photo: Phaedra Cowden
Stair-step moss in the arctic
Photo: Phaedra Cowden

Video guide

Kayla Wilkins demonstrates how to identify stair-step moss in the field:

Red-stemmed feather moss

Pleurozium schreberi

Description

Red-stemmed feather moss has branches that emerge at right angles from the main stem, giving this moss a “feather” like appearance.  It can grow up to 16 cm in length. 
 
Colour ranges from light green to yellowish.  Bright red-orange stems are distinctly visible when the moss is wet.  For more details, check out the BBS field guide page on Pleurozium schreberi.
Red-stemmed feather moss
Photo: Tanner Liang
Red stem feather moss "carpet"
Photo: Phaedra Cowden

Where to find it

Colonies form carpets over large areas and have a “shag carpet “appearance or can grow in smaller clumps among other mosses or grasses.

Gallery

Have a look at a few different images.  Sometimes mosses can look a bit different depending on their growth conditions! The iNaturalist page has lots of additional images.

Callicladium haldanianum

Watch out for the similar-looking sword moss:

Sword moss
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

However, sword moss:

  • Has loosely overlapping leaves giving it a spiky appearance
  • Does not have a red stem

Calliergonella cuspidata

Watch out for the similar-looking  spear moss:

Spear moss
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

However, spear moss:

  • Grows only in wetlands
  • Does not have a red stem

Video guide

Kayla Wilkins demonstrates how to identify red-stemmed feather moss in the field:

Other ID guides

Here are some external resources for identifying stair-step moss and red-stemmed feather moss:

UBC Forestry:
A very useful video guide to identifying stair-step moss in the field.

BBS field guide:
A page from the British Bryological Society (BBS) field guide describing Pleurozium schreberi.

inaturalist.ca:
Lots of pictures to view the different growth forms.  You can even submit your own!

Société québécoise de bryologie:
Under the tab Bryoquel-mousses, there is a list of all moss species found in Québec, with excellent pictures.

Ready to Sample?

Now you know how to Spot Your Moss and identify Stair-step moss and Red-stemmed feather moss. If you haven’t selected your grid area, you can Reserve Your Turf! Then find out how to Pick and Package your samples.

1

Reserve your turf

Sign up to sample a spot anywhere across Canada.

2

Spot your moss

Search for two common species of moss. They’re easy to spot once you know how!

3

Pick and Package

Send it to us for analysis in our lab.