If you live in a lowland area, a visit to a woodland will generally yield one or more of these common species growing on the ground.
Eurhynchium striatum (Common Striated Feather-moss)
Eurhynchium striatum prefers shaded neutral to basic soils in long-established woodlands. It is a large and bushy-looking moss, with rigid, wiry stems. Its leaves are triangular and toothed and are strongly longitudinally pleated (or striate, hence the name). As a result, they look distinctly wrinkled, a character that is emphasised on drying.
Sometimes, when Eurhynchium striatum is abundant, plants break off into loose masses that roll around on the ground like a mossy version of tumbleweed. In damper areas it can often be seen clothing the bases of small saplings in woodland.
For more information, visit the Eurhynchium striatum species page.
Thamnobryum alopecurum (Fox-tail Feather-moss)
Thamnobryum alopecurum frequently grows with Eurhynchium striatum and is a similar size and colour. The similarity ends there, however. One of the main differences is in the way the plants grow. Pull up some Thamnobryum and you may notice that it resembles a miniature tree. Plants have an erect, wiry-looking dark main stem (the trunk) that, apart from a few stem leaves, is bare. At the top, branches spread out in different directions like the canopy of a tree.
Examination of one of the branch leaves with a x20 lens will show that they are egg-shaped and, critically, have a few coarse teeth on the margins near the tip. Unlike Eurhynchium striatum, the leaves are not pleated.
Thamnobryum alopecurum has a very different kind of habitat in upland districts, where it can be abundant on rocks in and on the bank of fast, rocky watercourses.
For more information, visit the Thamnobryum alopecurum species page.
Thuidium tamariscinum (Common Tamarisk-moss)
Once known, Thuidium tamariscinum is readily recognised when it grows in woodland and in some parts of the country it is regarded as an ancient woodland indicator. It is a large species, bright yellow-green to dark green with occasional hues of orange. Its shoots grow in one plane and it is tri-pinnate, giving a feathery, delicate appearance not seen in other woodland mosses. It has very broad, heart-shaped stem leaves which contrast greatly with the far smaller branch leaves. Both are longitudinally pleated.
An interesting feature that can be seen (just) with a x20 hand lens is the presence of numerous paraphyllia, tiny branched filaments which cover the green or red-brown stem, making it look fuzzy.
When Thuidium tamariscinum is growing well its stems grow to considerable lengths. The only other common moss with which it might be confused (in upland woods) is Hylocomium splendens, which has obvious red stems.
For more information, visit the Thuidium tamariscinum species page.
Brachythecium rutabulum (Rough-stalked Feather-moss)
Brachythecium rutabulum is a very common species of woodland as well as many other lowland habitats. Ubiquitous though it is, it lacks particular distinguishing characters. It is pleurocarpous, forming loose patches of creeping, irregularly branched robust stems. It has a pale, golden-green colour that once known suggests this species, as does the glossiness of its leaves and shoot tips. Its leaves are triangular in shape and weakly pleated longitudinally, tapering to a long narrow point. Curved capsules are often present and are a characteristic glossy dark brown with a conical, beakless lid. Using a hand lens will confirm a rough seta.
For more information, visit the Brachythecium rutabulum species page
Kindbergia praelonga (Common Feather-moss)
Kindbergia praelonga is very much a generalist, and grows around tree bases, on the ground, in lawns and on logs. It’s very tolerant of shade and is sometimes the only moss to be found on the ground below dense scrub. Well grown Kindbergia praelonga has neat pinnately-branched shoots, but it is quite variable and thin straggly forms or particularly robust ones can easily be confused with other mosses. A good character to check (with a hand lens) is the shape of the stem and branch leaves. Kindbergia praelonga has two distinct types of leaves: the stem leaves are triangularly heart-shaped with a long fine reflexed tip, and a wide base which however narrows abruptly to clasp the stem. The branch leaves are smaller and narrower with no clasping, wide base and a more gradual narrowing to the tip.
For more information, visit the Kindbergia praelonga species page.
Atrichum undulatum (Common Smooth-cap)
One of the commonest woodland acrocarps, Atrichum undulatum grows in low, dark green patches a few centimetres tall on soil, especially clay woodland banks. Its leaves spread widely, making plants look quite starry from above. Examining a plant with a hand lens will show that the leaf is transversely wrinkled (or undulate, hence the species name). It has obvious teeth along the margins, which are actually in pairs, and more teeth on the bank of the leaf, an unusual character for a moss. With the lens and good light, it is possible to discern several faint parallel dark lines running along the nerve on the upper surface. These are lamellae, parallel ridges of tissue overlying the nerve.
Capsules are common in autumn through to spring. They are lifted well above the plants, are inclined and cylindrical, and the capsule lid has a long beak. Once the lid has fallen, use a hand-lens to see that the mouth of the capsule is closed by a pale, perforated membrane that will persist for many months.
For more information, visit the Atrichum undulatum species page
Mnium hornum (Swan’s-neck Thyme-moss)
Mnium hornum may grow in similar places to Atrichum undulatum, although it prefers moderately acid soils; it also grows on decaying wood on the woodland floor. At first glance it also resembles that species, although it lacks any leaf undulations or nerve lamellae. The paired teeth on the edge of the leaf arise from an obvious border of long, pale cells (hand lens).
Mnium hornum is dioicous and in spring especially, fertile male and female plants look very different. The males have what appear to look like red-brown ‘flowers’ at the tips of their shoots, where the male organs are clustered in a head. Females produce pendulous capsules on long setae.
For more information, visit the Mnium hornum species page.
In upland areas – in addition to most of the species above – the following species are also widespread.
Rhytidiadelphus loreus (Little Shaggy-moss)
In upland districts, especially in the north and west, Rhytidiadelphus loreus may be a common and distinctive-looking large moss of the woodland floor and shaded boulders. Its close relative Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus looks similar but is smaller and prefers open habitats.
Rhytidiadelphus loreus has wiry red stems and is irregularly pinnately branched. Its leaves are broadly triangular and distinctly pleated and the nerve is either absent or very short and double and very hard to see in the field. They curve away from the stem in the same direction, giving the whole plant a characteristically shaggy look. Confusion is only likely with Hylocomiadelphus triquetrus (Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus), a plant of similar stature and habitat. However, that moss is more bushy looking, with pale, chaffy-looking leaves that stick out in all directions. With a hand-lens, it is possible to see a double nerve which reaches mid-leaf.
For more information, visit the Rhytidiadelphus loreus species page.
Polytrichum formosum (Bank Haircap)
Polytrichum formosum (Polytrichastrum formosum) is a distinctive looking moss of the woodland floor. Its erect, dark green spiky shoots are usually 5 to 10cm tall and are reminiscent of small bottlebrushes. Close examination of the leaves, which stick out rigidly from the stem at a wide angle, will show that they taper from a sheathing silvery base to a sharp tip and are opaque. This makes them unusual in British and Irish acrocarps, most of which have leaves that are only one cells thick. This is because the nerve occupies nearly the whole of the leaf blade and it is covered in numerous parallel ridges of tissue (lamellae). Only at the margin is the leaf one cell thick. It is also sharply toothed from base to tip.
Polytrichum formosum is often found with capsules, which persist many months after the spores have been released. They are borne on setae 7-8 cm long and box-like, with 5-6 angles. Like its relative Atrichum undulatum, the mouth of the ripe capsule is covered in a pale membrane.
In boggy woods Polytrichum formosum may be confused with Polytrichum commune, which is normally a taller plant. Capsules of Polytrichum commune are 4-angled and borne on a longer seta (6-12 cm).
For more information, visit the Polytrichum formosum species page.