The Wild Beauty of Moss

GROWING UP IN Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom region, the floral designer Emily Thompson was fascinated by the velvety mosses that blanket the area’s forest floors and creep along its glacial boulders. “Moss is so fertile and delectable,” she says. “Each piece is its own little realm.” Since opening her namesake New York-based studio in 2009, she has often included the plant in her arrangements, from the fairyland gardens she created under the White House Christmas trees in 2011 to the moss-and-lichen-covered stones she deployed as centerpieces for a wedding at the New York Public Library’s main branch in 2021. “I like to see moss celebrated for its own sake,” she says, alluding to the behind-the-scenes role it’s historically played in floral design, covering the roots of potted orchids or chicken wire used to build sculptural installations. But that approach is changing as designers are increasingly placing moss in the spotlight, embracing it as a substitute for evergreens in holiday wreaths or draping swaths of it across mantels and tabletops.

True mosses — classified in the taxonomic group Bryophyta — have neither roots nor flowers and lack the vascular systems that most flora rely on to draw water and nutrients from the soil. Still, some of them can absorb as much as 40 times their weight in moisture, which is one of the qualities that allows moss to grow in nearly every environment, including deserts. The first plants to colonize land hundreds of millions of years ago, they’ve been used by humans for millenniums for everything from insulation and bedding to battlefield bandages (sphagnum moss has antiseptic properties). And yet moss — unassuming and literally underfoot — has long been overlooked by Western naturalists. According to the bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author of the essay collections “Gathering Moss” (2003) and “Braiding Sweetgrass” (2013), field guides to the plant didn’t exist until quite recently, and many types still don’t have common names. In fact, some of the most popular plants known as moss are not actually mosses (Irish moss belongs to the carnation family; Spanish moss is a bromeliad). But despite their low profile, mosses, which Kimmerer has compared to forests in miniature, complete with canopies of single-cell-thick leaves and diverse populations of microscopic organisms, play an outsize role in our ecosystem, regulating water tables and soil temperature. Together with lichens, they capture a third of the world’s terrestrial carbon, preventing it from being released into the atmosphere.

SOPHIA MORENO-BUNGE, the founder of the Los Angeles floral design studio Isa Isa, especially enjoys working with Spanish moss around the holidays. “It has this hairy structure and a silver tone, so it’s almost like nature’s tinsel,” she says. Last Christmas, she used it to make shaggy wreaths and tabletop topiaries reminiscent of Maurice Sendak monsters for clients including the interior designer Kelly Wearstler.

In Los Angeles, moss can be hard to come by, but farther north, it’s a defining element of the landscape. The Portland, Ore.-based floral designer Françoise Weeks uses several types to create her abstract woodland wall sculptures, which also feature curling bark, dried seed pods and wildflowers. Green mosses thrive in the soggy, temperate Pacific Northwest, but the plants — some species of which are among the world’s most drought tolerant — may be particularly well suited to our era of climate change-induced extreme weather. A few years ago, when Portland experienced a heat wave, Weeks was alarmed to see the city’s ubiquitous verdant pelt turn brown. “But then it rained and the green all came back again,” she says.

In England, too, moss grows so abundantly in some places that gardeners forage it from their own properties, in the process tidying flagstone paths and outdoor steps. That’s how the florist Polly Nicholson, the founder of Bayntun Flowers in Wiltshire, gets her supply. “It’s important to know where the moss you use is from,” she says, adding that the stripping of moss and peat from bogs and other wilderness areas is a growing environmental concern. Nicholson’s most alluring moss creations are her takes on kokedama, or Japanese moss balls. Considered an expression of wabi-sabi, or imperfect beauty, kokedama evolved from a bonsai technique used with plants whose roots have grown into the shape of their pots. To make her versions, Nicholson encases the roots of hellebores in damp topsoil and wraps the dirt in moss, then in twine, often hanging them from the rafters of her workshop.

The London-based floral designer Shane Connolly prefers moss — which he occasionally harvests from the pathway outside his studio — to appear as natural as possible in his arrangements, using it as a counterpoint to stiff formality. “I love when it looks like it was just dug up from the earth,” he says. The Los Angeles-based designers Michael Woodcock and Ezra Woods of Pretend Plants & Flowers feel similarly, sometimes laying freshly excavated moss down the center of tables for events. “It’s not an even, smooth thing,” says Woodcock of the highly textured pieces. “There are ferns and twigs, like a tapestry of the forest floor.” After all, moss’s beauty lies partly in its wildness, in its ability to conjure a bygone world — or perhaps a future one — untrodden by human feet.

Photo assistants: Sarah Gardner, Serena Nappa. Floral artist’s assistant: Tate Obayashi

Back to top button