Phillip Pratt the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust volunteer warden at Marlow’s very own SSSI (Site of special scientific interest) Homefield Wood. He led us as we set off on a new adventure into nature. Clearly Phil had thought this walk through as we arrived at his car within the site where he produced from his boot what looked like a moss and liverwort tray of Sushi. Phil proceeded to explain to us what we were about to find, with something he had rustled up earlier as any good chef would have said.
To understand mosses and liverworts it really helps to touch them but also to see them up close, as they are so tiny and delicate in their detail. It was great that Verity has also done her prep and handed round a selection of nicely bagged and sterilised hand lenses, to allow us all to look very closely with good magnification.
Each of us took one sample of each plant as Phil explained what to look for and why mosses and liverworts are so special. Under the lenses, the moss structured looked like jelly, some only one cell thick and shining and bulging in the dew.
We looked at Capillary thread moss, Silver moss, Pocket moss, Grey cushioned Grimmia and the Great scented liverwort which if you squeezed in your fingers smelt faintly of apples.
Mosses and liverworts do not have roots, their base is called a rhizoid. They do not feed through this like other plants but absorb their nutrients from the air and their surroundings.
They are of the plant group classified as Bryophytes and have evolved from the most ancient form of plants that were the first living things on the land, emerging from the ocean or rivers on shorelines over five hundred million years ago. The Liverworts certainly had something of a seaweed look about them with their knobbly leaves, which we would learn are their spore pods.
These ancient plants, like all animals in the water, need the water or liquid to reproduce. Their spores must travel by surface water to find the female cells of the plant. It was interesting to learn that like some other plants, although the morphology presents very differently across species, they have a generation one and generation two approach to reproduction. That is to say, the male plant produces a female offspring to then allow the asexual reproduction to occur and develop within the micro ecology of their surroundings. I only have a vague memory of a haploid gametophyte generation and a diploid sporophyte generation, alternate in the life cycle so it was interesting to learn about this concept in plants.
Phil referenced a very handy field guide*, which he strongly recommends at just £6 in all good bookshops and online. Phil talked about many other features of the mosses and liverworts, too much to note while holding a hand lens or walking with our cameras at hand.
Mosses and liverworts are fascinating in themselves but also clearly a key habitat for other tiny insects, they are a crucial part of our ecosystem and something easily overlooked until you come on a tour like this one. The whole group were intrigued to hear more and the tour continued beyond the allotted time thanks to the interest of everyone and the knowledge that Phil shared as we walked through the woods, spotting not just the mosses and liverworts but other interesting plants and insects as some very special blue fungi. It was an excellent walk, one I’d recommend to anyone.
(*A Guide to Finding Mosses in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire - Peter Creed & Tom Haynes)