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table of contents   
The Science of Systematics
Bryology
PROFILE: Marshall Crosby
Marshall Crosby Marshall Crosby is Senior Botanist at the Garden and the world's leading authority on moss names. The Crosby Bryophyte Herbarium is named in his honor.
Photo: Trent Foltz

Mysteries of the Mosses

As Marshall Crosby carefully opens a folded white packet containg a moss specimen, all a visitor can think is, "Don't sneeze." The contents of the packet look like fine granules of brown sugar. The specimen is tiny. To study it closely, you'd need a microscope. One false move, and it might scatter like so much dust.

Mosses are second in numbers only to flowering plants. Over the centuries, 50,000 names have been used to describe the 13,000 moss species. In the early 1970's, as the first bryologist on the Garden staff, Crosby took on the challenge of tracking and sorting out these redundancies, and he has become the world's leading authority on moss names.

This taxonomy project, like much of Crosby's work, is decidedly un-showy; he describes the mosses he studies as "little green plants in moist, shady places." But while they may lack the showy appeal of roses or orchids, mosses can be both beautiful and scientifically significant. "Often they are the first plants to appear in areas affected by landslides and lava flows," says Crosby. "Understanding mosses is critical in the big scheme of things."

Crosby delights in working behind the scenes, compiling bibliographies and classifying and preserving the knowledge essential to an understanding of the botanical world. "The value we create for others is to provide a reservoir of information and a standardized base of reference resources," he says. "This is basic science at its best."

C. nigritum "True mosses" include 95 percent of all known kinds of moss.
Shown: Catascopium nigritum.
Photo: Bruce Allen
Sphagnum moss Bogs are formed over millenia by the growth of mosses, especially Sphagnum, or peat moss. Its specialized cells absorb and hold tremendous amounts of water.
Photo: Robert Magill

Science of Systematics: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13
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Text and photos from "The Unseen Garden" available from MBG Press.
 
 
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