Sunday, September 13, 2020

A mossy life in the clouds

The Cascade Mountain Trail near Lake Placid in New York State is a moderate hike that takes you above the treeline to bald rocky outcrops 1250 meters above sea level. At this height, alpine vegetation can be seen among the plant life, their low slung bodies hugging the ground in order to shelter from any strong winds.

I was eating lunch next to large boulders, when I noticed some vegetation hidden in the shadow of the rocks. When I looked more closely, I was delighted to find some grasses growing from a luxuriant carpet of moss.

The grasses had very fine leaves, and dried seedheads rose from the clumps like tiny white flags. A quick investigation showed the panicles contained the remnants of extremely tiny spikelets.

I took macro shots of the spikelets, which were probably only 1-2 mm in size, and based on that and the leaves tentatively identified the species as Deschampsia flexuosa.

The association of this species with mosses immediately brought to mind the habits of its sister, the noteworthy Deschampsia antartica, which is only one of two vascular plants that have managed to colonize deep into Antartica.   That species is also frequently seen growing from mosses, and researchers have found that specimens in such an association are larger and healthier than those individuals living on bare rocks (Casanova-Katny and Cavieres, 2012).

They surmised that mosses help the grass by modifying the surrounding environment, perhaps by increasing soil moisture and soil nutrients content, or by also buffering temperature compared to bare areas.

Whatever the reason for their association, my surprise find at the summit of Cascade Mountain certainly added to the enjoyment of the hike!

Literature Cited

Casanova-Katny M. A., Cavieres L. A. (2012). Antarctic moss carpets facilitate growth of Deschampsia antarctica but not its survival. Pol. Biol. 35 1869–1878

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