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The Nature Nut

Learn about liverworts
Leafy Liverwort (Plagiochila porelloides) by Hermann Schachner / Wikimedia Commons

Last week I talked about liverworts, and I may have mentioned other plants in the past where part of the common name is “wort”. So why “wort”? A wort is a 9th century word meaning “herb” and, according to the “Doctrine of Signatures”, if a plant looked like a part of the human body, it must be useful for treating diseases of that body part. So, because some species of thalloid liverwort resembled the shape of liver tissue they were used medicinally to alleviate diseases of the liver.

Liverworts and mosses (collectively known as bryophytes) do not grow very big and tend to be low to the ground or close to whatever they are growing on e.g., tree bark, rocks etc. They tend to prefer a moist environment.

One reason mosses and liverworts are small is because they do not contain vascular tissue i.e., rigid tissues such as xylem and phloem which transport water and soluble nutrients respectively. Also, they do not have well developed roots to suck water and nutrients from the soil. Instead, the plants absorb water and dissolved nutrients over their body surface.

Mosses and liverworts depend on water for successful sexual reproduction as the motile sperm must swim over the surface of the plant until they find egg cells to fertilize. The resulting embryo then grows into a stalked capsule which releases tiny spores into the air. These germinate into new plants.

While most mosses need a moist environment, some can withstand quite severe desiccation but bounce back readily after rain falls. By staying low to the ground, they provide a moist environment for insects, worms and tardigrades as well as helping to reduce water loss from the soils beneath.

Bryophytes were used traditionally by First Nations people for wiping slime off fish, cleaning, keeping food and wood moist, lining bedding amongst other things. Sphagnum moss was the preferred moss and wet or dry was used for baby care, personal hygiene and treating wounds because of its high absorptive properties.

During World War 1, when they ran out of bandages, sphagnum was used on wounds to soak up blood.

At the same time it was found to help with healing because it contains a natural antiseptic. I have discovered it also takes the pain out of wasp stings.