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Mosses and Lichens 101

Updated: Feb 8, 2019

Mosses and lichens are commonly and easily confused, to the point that the common names of many lichens include "moss" in the name. While mosses and lichens can be very similar in appearance, they are not the same thing, nor are they closely related. So, what's the difference?

Mosses are small plants. They are an interesting type of plant, in that they reproduce using spores rather than seeds, are non-flowering, and are non- or minimally-vascular, but at base they are simply tiny plants. Behaviorally, mosses tend to form low-growing mats and mounds in moist areas on soil, rocks, wood, or any other stable, reliably moist surface.

Lichens, on the other hand, are not plants at all. A lichen not even an organism strictly speaking, but rather more of an ecosystem. Lichens include - at a minimum - fungi and photosynthetic algae or cyanobacteria in a symbiotic relationship wherein the fungi provide protection and shelter for the algae or bacteria, and the algae or bacteria provide energy through photosynthesis for the fungi (and give the lichen its color). Some lichen may include a whole community of mutually interacting microorganisms at increasing levels of complexity.

Assorted Mosses & Lichens close-up

At Vertical Garden, Co., we use both preserved mosses and lichens in our custom moss walls, as both can be effectively preserved, and each variety and species brings its own unique texture, shape and character, for a richer, more varied palette.

Some of the species you might find in a Vertical Garden, Co. Moss Wall include:

Reindeer Moss close-up

Reindeer Moss - Cladonia rangiferina

Other Common Names: Deer or Caribou Moss

Reindeer moss is a light-coloured lichen found in open, sun-exposed areas of the northern latitude. As its name suggests, it is an important food source for different species of deer, and has been used historically in traditional societies for its medicinal properties. It has a rounded, densely branched form reminiscent of a tiny tumbleweed or fan coral.

Important note: Reindeer Moss is slow-growing and may take decades to return once over-grazed or over-harvested, so responsible harvesting is indispensable. (See our post on sustainable moss harvesting.)


Sheet Moss, Feather Moss, close-up
photo credit: Bob Klips

Sheet Moss - Hypnum imponens

Other Common Names: Fern, Feather, Brocade or Log Moss

Sheet Moss is common across a wide swath of North America, from Canada to Mexico, and presents a range of colors, from yellow to medium green to brown and every shade in between. This moss holds rows of delicate, slightly curved leaves on a central stem, giving it a soft, feather-like appearance when examined closely. Growing in a creeping manner, sheet moss spreads to form dense mats over time up to 3” deep.


Mood Moss, Dicranium scoparium
photo credit: Naoki Nishimura

Mood Moss - Dicranium Scoparium

Other Common Names: Windswept or Broom Moss

Mood Moss is a rich, velvety moss that forms clumps about 3-4” thick in relatively dry, well-shaded parts of the forest floor. It maintains its deep green color through the preservation process, adding a rich vitality without the need for additional colorants or chemicals. Mood moss mounds are soft on the eye and to the touch.


Sphagnum Moss, close-up
credit Robb Murray

Sphagnum Moss - Sphagnum ssp.

Other Common Names: Peat Moss

Sphagnum moss is a genus of about 380 species that form the key component of peat bogs. Most common in the peat bogs and conifer forests of the Northern Hemisphere, they also occur in the Southern Hemisphere from Chile, Argentina, and Brazil to New Zealand and Tasmania. Sphagnum mosses can grow in such dense, floating mats over swamps that they support the weight of several fully-grown moose, or one small car! Color is usually light green, but can range from yellow to pink or deep-red.


Wolfen Lichen, close-up
photo credit: Katja Schulz

Branched Wolfen Lichen - Letharia vulpina

Wolfen Lichen is an abundant species in the Pacific Northwest, often similar in appearance to Reindeer Moss (forming rounded, shrub-like, and densely-branched bunches), although individual branches tend to be more prominent than Reindeer Moss. Its coloration tends more to the yellowish side of green due to relatively high concentrations of vulpinic acid.

Important note: vulpinic acid is slightly poisonous to mammals, and high concentrations of wolfen lichen were traditionally used to kill scavenging predators (hence its common name). Therefore it is not recommended for installation within the reach of curious pets.


Parmelia Lichen, close-up
photo credit: Alan Watson Featherstone

Branched Parmelia Lichen - Parmelia saxatilis

Other Common Names: Hammered, Cracked, or Furrowed Shield Lichen

This tough species is one of the most common lichens, occurring widely throughout much of the world, in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Its bottom side is black, while the top can range from greyish-white to red or orange, depending on the compounds with which it reacts in the environment. Traditional uses include dyeing (it produces a reddish-brown color) and medical applications for a variety of ailments.


Star Moss, close-up
credit: Li Zhang

Star Moss - Atrichum angustatum

Other Common Names: Lesser Smoothcap Moss

Grows commonly across Eastern North America in open, disturbed areas, often on poor, sandy soils. This short plant tends to stay at or below 1” tall, with attractive foliage radiating out from central stems in a star-like shape. Star moss’s color is usually medium green, though it shoots up colorful brown or orange caps (sporophytes) when it is ready to reproduce.

Mosses and lichens come in such a rich and wide variety of forms and colors that the design possibilities are just about endless. Our team of architects and designers will develop a design for you from scratch or work with you to bring your vision to fruition. Contact us to get your moss wall started today!

CasaCor BH, Moss Wall
CasaCor BH, Eduarda Correa


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Preserved Moss: What is it and what are its advantages?

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