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Off the boards in the swamp

By Susan and Biff Andrews

We were out walking the boardwalk at the George Washington Trail in the Great Dismal Swamp with our Master Naturalist friends last week when John Bunch went off the boards and into the swamp.

He didn’t fall; something caught his attention. Was it a two-toed amphiuma or some elusive bird that caught his eye? You never know with John, so everybody watched and waited. His destination: a tree. He examined the bark closely with a little magnifying loupe. What was he up to?

When he rejoined the group he showed us what he had been looking for. In his hand was a tiny little plant. OK, so what is it?

A liverwort. Sounds like something my dear old granny had.

We had never heard of a liverwort before, but we were all really excited that he had found one and that the group was able to see it firsthand, because we knew it must be something special.

So now the “sickness” spreads. We’ve got to find out about liverworts.

They are part of a group of tiny plants called bryophytes. And we mean tiny. And, if that weren’t enough trouble, they like to hang out in moist areas of the forest with lichens and fungi, just to add to the confusion or excitement, depending on your point of view.

While you’re getting out your magnifying glass, don’t forget your plant identification book. It’s going to be tricky for us amateurs. John shared “Mosses, Liverworts, and Hornworts” by Ralph Pope with us for our researching pleasure.

Bryophytes are living examples that, no matter the size, everything in nature has an important role in the ecosystem that it inhabits. They are not tiny versions of larger vascular plants; their physical characteristics are very different. These tiny plants are the oldest known plants, dating back in the fossil record to the first land plants known to have existed. They are important historically because they are the closest link between land and aquatic plants and understanding the history of life on Earth.

Bryophytes are small, mainly non-vascular, plants that reproduce by spores. They have to have water to allow their reproductive cells to combine. Their small size is due to their poor transport methods for moving water, gasses and other compounds. They don’t have an essential protein called lignin that is found in vascular plants, so they cannot take water from the soil and transport it. They do have very high moisture retention, so they soak in water like a sponge. Mosses are the most common type of bryophytes.

Besides their historical significance, bryophytes play an important role in the ecosystem in terms of habitat quality. They recycle nutrients that are washed down to them from the tree canopy above, providing a buffer system for other plants that live alongside them that benefit from the water and nutrients they collect. They are important to production of habitat for microorganisms, insects and other invertebrates. They provide seed beds for larger plants and bind the soil to keep it from eroding.

They are important for their water absorption. An example would be the water absorption of Sphagnum Moss (peat) in the Great Dismal Swamp in relation to flood and fire. And if that’s not good enough, in Scotland, where there is a lot of sphagnum moss, those ingenious Scots figured it into the production of their fine Scotch whiskey.

If you’d like to know more about things in nature, great and small, join our group.

The Historic Southside Chapter of Virginia Master Naturalists is accepting applications for new members now through January. Log on to our website at vmnhistoricsouthside.org.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.