Mosses, ferns and lichen

Credits: Cup lichen and moss - Philip Precey

These plants are more ancient and primitive than flowers and trees and they use spores to reproduce rather than seeds. Lichens grow almost everywhere, but mosses and ferns prefer places that are more damp and shady. You'll still see them both growing in quite a lot of places though.

Lichens are formed from both a fungus and an algae living in a partnership which enables them to survive in some of the hottest and coldest places on the planet. They are often the first living creatures to colonise bare rock and begin the process of breaking down rocks into soil that other plants start to grow in. 


Mosses are low growing plants with no true roots, usually green and often soft to the touch. Ferns have their stems underground and all we usually see above ground are their fronds. Mosses and ferns are commonest in wet shady spaces, such as under trees in woodlands, whereas lichens are found in a very wide range of habitats including open bare rock, the walls of buildings, tree trunks, rock pools, bare soil, and sandy heaths – everywhere from sea level to mountain tops!


Did you know?

Some mosses and ferns are ‘epiphytes’ which means they grow on other plants – see if you can find mosses and ferns growing on trees.

Five ferns, mosses and lichens to look out for:

Sphagnum moss: These are also called bog mosses. They play an important role in developing peat as even when dead their plant structure stores water.

Harts tongue fern: Like a long green tongue the strap like leaves of this fern can be found growing in damp woodlands or on shady rocks and walls often close to water. It sometimes grows inside wells.

Royal fern: One of our largest ferns but now uncommon as in the past it was collected from the wild to transplant into gardens. It can grow up to three metres tall and one metre wide.

Bracken: Our commonest fern and one that breaks all the rules! It grows well in dry places and large areas of upland hillsides and lowland heaths may be covered with bracken. It can be a conservation problem as few other plants will grow in areas dominated by bracken.

Pixie cup lichen: Common on moorlands, this lichen develops distinctive goblet shaped cups with bright red spore bearing structures on the rim of the cups. There are several similar ‘cup lichens’ some of which grow on garden walls. It’s scientific name is Cladonia coccifera.