Stirring Moss


Nik Demidko: Green Moss, 2021 (Unsplash)

From The Guardian:

One of the key figures who recorded the diversity of mosses in Britain in painstaking detail was Johann Jakob Dillenius, a German botanist. Dillenius studied medicine, while maintaining a strong interest in botany, at the University of Giessen, where he wrote his first major work, Catalog of Plants Originating Naturally Around Giessen (1718). In it, he identified several mosses and fungi, under the heading Cryptogams, denoting plants that reproduce via spores, also known as “the lower plants”.

Perhaps only a handful of botanists at the time would have bothered spending their days with their hands touching the ground that other people walk on and animals relieve themselves on. But Dillenius did, and his work impressed William Sherard, a leading English botanist. Sherard had recently acquired a huge collection of plants from Smyrna (present-day İzmir in Turkey) and had been searching for somebody to help organise it. He offered Dillenius a job at his garden in Eltham, just outside London; and, in 1721, Dillenius migrated to Britain to work on Sherard’s plant collection, the mosses of Britain, and a pinax (an illustrated catalogue) of Britain’s plants.

For the first seven years of his time in Britain, Dillenius lived between Eltham and his own lodgings in London. In 1724, he produced his first book in Britain, the third edition of Synopsis methodica stirpium Britannicarum, originally written by the Cambridge-based botanist and naturalist John Ray in 1670. In the second edition (1696), Ray had identified 80 types of mosses, to which Dillenius added, according to George Claridge Druce’s account, 40 types of fungi, more than 150 types of mosses, and 200-plus seed plants. Dillenius divided cryptogams into “fungi” and “musci”, excluding ferns and equisetums.

For perhaps the first time, somebody had paid meticulous and singular attention to the “lower plants”. It fascinated me to imagine an 18th-century gentleman spending hours and years touching and collecting the mosses of Britain. We don’t know much about Dillenius’s inner life, but one can glean from his letters that he loved mosses and liked his life in their company. His life among English people? Not so much.

“The many meanings of moss”, Nikita Arora, The Guardian

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