Marvelous moss: Mossin’ Annie worships the lush and lovely bryophytes

out frBy Melanie Threlkeld McConnell • Correspondent

A rolling stone gathers no moss, so says the proverb, but it would if Annie Martin had her way — and be the better for it.

Martin, also known as Mossin’ Annie, is leaving her mark on the world — literally — with moss, and she’s hoping others will too, after they see her signature moss garden at the Highlands Biological Station.

The Leila Barnes Cheatham Moss Garden at Highlands is a learning garden, the first of its kind in the country, Martin believes, where the various types of moss — and a few liverworts — chosen specifically for the garden’s dedicated space are all labeled so visitors can learn their names.

“If you travel around the world, even to the grandest gardens in Kyoto, Japan, where moss gardens have lived for 5,000 years, you will rarely find them labeled,” she said. “And this is true of one place to the next, to the next, to the next — including prestigious botanical gardens and arboreta.”

Luckily, Martin noted, “Highlands had people who were interested in bryophytes (the collective term for mosses, liverworts and hornworts). So this is one of the very first learning moss gardens ever, where you can learn to introduce and cultivate mosses for yourself and see how to combine them into a miniature landscape — into your own serene retreat. And you don’t have to be a Buddhist in Japan to enjoy it. You can be a Southern Baptist in North Carolina.”

But there’s more to moss than just a soft, green surface, said Martin, who became fascinated as a child by the miniature world of mosses.

“I made my first terrarium when I was 10 years old. I was like everybody else — moss was just moss. I had no clue about the varieties there were,” she said. “Most people really don’t understand how unique mosses are in the plant world.”

What you’re seeing when you look at moss are “thousands upon thousands of plants growing in a colony together,” she said. Mosses aren’t merely beautiful, however, but are an ecological workhorse. They can serve as an environmental-friendly solution for filtering storm water, absorbing runoff and stopping erosion on steep hillsides.

“Mosses are an alternative to mulch and don’t require fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides,” Martin said.

They are truly one of nature’s wonder plants.

“They tolerate extreme heat and cold, and they actually grow at subfreezing temperatures. They can also be planted in the dead of winter since they don’t follow seasons like other plants,” Martin said.

The Leila Barnes Cheatham Moss Garden at Highlands is an example of that.

“We installed the mosses in January in freezing temperatures, and it snowed before I finished it,” said Martin.

Martin said she is confident that Cheatham, the garden’s namesake, would be pleased with the result.

“Mrs. Cheatham was a native plant enthusiast, who reveled in the beauty of these mountains and treasured the diversity of our environment,” Martin said.

Cheatham lived in North Georgia but spent many summers in Highlands exploring the trails and gardens of the biological station. Her daughter donated funds for the first phase of this moss garden in tribute to her mother.

Martin believes in the virtues of moss so much that she started her own business, Mountain Moss, to help people better understand its benefits. The biggest myth about moss? It’s only a shade loving plant.

“While some kinds only like the shade, the critical factor is moisture for many of our local mosses, not the sun,” she said.

To illustrate this, Martin designed a moss roof on a garden shed at the North Carolina Arboretum that gets direct sun.

“Why a moss green roof? The insulation factors, having living plants that cool the roof itself, therefore cooling the building, she said. “The best thing about a moss green roof is you do not have to be concerned about weight load or major structural modifications... and you can enjoy it throughout the entire year, not just during typical spring and summer growing seasons.”

And how about a moss lawn, which Martin has?

“A moss lawn requires 1/10,000 of the water of a grass lawn,” she said. Also, mosses will thrive in locations where grasses struggle, such as deep shade or nutrient-poor soil.” And of course, no mowing is required.

But there’s more to moss than its functionality or environmental benefits, Martin said. With an artist’s eye, she considers the landscape and finds “the bones” to help guide her design.

“I consider the mosses’ textures and the nuances of green and combine all that into an artistic expression, where moss has become the paint, and the landscape becomes my canvas,” she said.

For example, when Martin was designing the Highlands moss garden, she discovered great exposed tree roots at the site, which created a natural V-shape. From that V the artistic flow with mosses emerged — emphasizing the contours of the landscape with various moss types like Climacium, Entodon, Leucobryum and Thuidium.

Creating a moss garden was a natural step for the Highlands Biological Station because of the readily available mosses already in the area, according to Max Lanning, the Station’s botanical garden supervisor.

“When I started here, there was a lot of interest in making a focal garden just for educational purposes, for bryology,” Lanning said. “People don’t realize what diversity we have here in Highlands and the southern Blue Ridge.” And a hotspot for bryophyte species in particular.

There are between 400 and 500 species of moss in the area and very few experts, thus the creation of a moss garden, according to Lanning.

“We wanted to gain more awareness for that field,” Lanning said. “We have many mosses throughout the botanical garden, and we wanted to put them in a central place where people could see them.”

Besides running her moss business, Mossin’ Annie is writing a book about how to create your own moss garden. She warns people about treating moss like a weed.

“The most powerful poisons out there don’t kill mosses, they only stress them for a while, and then new green growth appears again,” she said, quite joyfully.

Now that the moss garden is finished, Martin hopes it will provide hands-on opportunities for local garden clubs and children to participate in the expansion of what she calls a “magical world of mosses.”

For more information on mosses, visit


Discover the wonders of moss

Annie Martin will give a moss workshop at the Highlands Biological Station from 3 to 5 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 2.

Beyond exploring the botanical characteristics of mosses, Martin will discuss the advantages of using mosses in landscapes and their value in sustainable landscapes. The presentation will explore moss gardening methods and show examples of successful moss garden applications. Martin will have specimens on display, as well as examples of moss-as-art.

After the lecture, there will be a guided walk around the Botanical Garden to admire mosses, particularly the Station’s new moss garden.

Registration required. 828.526.2602 or

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