The time of the moss approaches

Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Colors flood across the landscape as weather systems swirl with the change of season. The living landscape recognizes the shift and prepares for the next few months of darker, colder weather.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to

The reaction of trees and shrubs is to collect their earnings and store them away. They take the accumulated sugary wealth of their summer's work, and bury it down below the soil line, letting empty leaves fly away. They aren't yet dormant, the active transport system is still running full blast, but they are heading south with the dough.

The dropping of the leaves means that the forest floor and our domestic spaces are suddenly brighter. The leaves that collected the energy from the sun are now far fewer and soon they will all be gone. The vast millions of year's development of leafy flowering plants will be turned down low. Species that make solar waves into sugars, collect the carbohydrates into organized new growth points and make flowers, are going to sleep for the winter.

Some of these species make flowers that develop pollination lures for insects. They make sweet nectars, or emit bug sex lures. They have developed relationships with insects; mollusks or birds that weave the animal and vegetable kingdoms together, making our classification system seem overly simple. These relationships mean that one will depend on the other, and without the selected partner, reproduction suddenly becomes very difficult. Salmonberries, blueberries, skunk cabbage and fireweed are all insect, mollusk or bird pollinated.

Earlier forms of the flowering plants didn't have these relationships; they used physical forces in their search for the dance partner of the season. They cast their pollen out into the air in such quantities that it drifted about in clouds, floating bundles of genetic information looking for interested readers. The dominant trees of our zone are in that group. Cottonwoods and alders are wind pollinated and they use the same vehicle to spread their seed about the land. They too are dropping their leaves since the cold weather would kill them if they were still active.

Grasses are in this group too. They sway and bow before the greatest force of the planet, the world encompassing aerial sea. Wind and storm are their partners, and they are the most successful of the flowering plants. There are many more types of grasses than there are of any other species that make seed.

Almost every environment has its grasses. Swampy warm places, dry cold places, hot exposed hillsides or deeply shaded canyons have grasses that made themselves at home there. The adaptability of grasses is so great that entire eco-zones are dominated by their presence. Plains, prairies and steppes are grasslands and the herds of wildlife roaming the planet are grass feeders, as are all we who live from them.

We draw most of our food from grasses. Corn, wheat, rice and rye are grasses, and the animals we domesticated for our livelihoods are grass eaters too.

We partnered with cows, sheep, goats and horses early on in our race to live. The staff of life is a bunch of grass. But the upland grasses too are going dormant.

The wetlands are our doorways, and the ebb and flow of the tidal riches wash nutrients into and out of the land through these passages. The native grasses that fill the estuaries, sloughs and creeks are the mark of our region.

They, as much as the spruce hemlock forest define the pattern of life here in the north. The sweep of the shoreline is accompanied by the ruffle of foreshore grass. The color of the changing seasons is most obvious in these smoothly undulating sweeps. The greens are becoming yellows, and tans and soon the bleached creamy bone color of the drained tissues will be all that remains. Wetland grasses too are going dormant.

It will be the time of the moss again. Green and glowing, the older order of life is quickening. Leaves drop away, grasses fall and light pours onto the layers below. This is the full glory of the soft, squishy layer.

The original partnership of chlorophyll and sunlight was the algae in the sea, and they swept ashore into huge mats, colonizing the shores and edges of the land. Close behind were the mosses.

We get to see the entire progress story of life on earth twice every year. The springtime show runs foreword, the fall presentation in reverse. Lucky us.

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