Meet the Coolest Tiny Plants in the Forest

Cladonia pyxidata, also know as pixie cup lichen, holds water droplets. (Photo: Leonard Turner).

The next time you go for a walk in the woods to enjoy the beauty of nature, don’t worry about whether you can see the forest for the trees. If you want to see the grandeur of nature in all of its minute details, don’t look up or even beside you. Look down.

It’s on the forest floor at your feet — or maybe even under them if you’ve wandered off the beaten path — where Mother Nature has chosen to show off her most unusual floral artistry and, in some cases, even a sense of humor. Mosses, lichens, algae and other miniature plant life sport some of the brightest colors and strangest textures in the woods. Once you know they are there, you’ll find a new, diverse world to be explored.

Where to look

Miniatures occupy the full range of habitats where you’ll see vascular plants such as trees, shrubs, wildflowers and ferns. Within those habitats, though, road cuts and shady areas provide two primary micro-habitats.

“Often, they are the first colonists on bare soil or other disturbed sites,” said Robert Wyatt, professor emeritus of botany and ecology at the University of Georgia.

Because the miniatures are nonvascular plants, a good place to look for them is often in an area that remains damp. That’s because nonvascular plants have no water-conducting tissues. Instead, they absorb moisture directly through their surface areas.

Broom moss grows by the side of a road in Blue Ridge, Georgia
Broom moss grows by the side of a road in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Leonard Turner

“They also can be dominant on rock surfaces,” he said. “If you look closely, they really are everywhere.” By way of everywhere, think of the various kinds of substrates in addition to bare ground and rocks. Think about fallen limbs, tree trunks or branches and twigs.

City dwellers can even get in on the action. Miniature plants such as silver moss can take up residence in the harsh conditions of crevices in the road or sidewalk in the middle of large cities, Wyatt added.

What you can see

First of all, remember that the miniatures are just that: miniature. Think in fractions of an inch. When you look closely, which means bending down into their mini-world, you’ll see that these tiny plants are as diverse in their forms, textures and colors as the vascular plants, Wyatt noted.

“Many have delicate branching patterns similar to ferns,” Wyatt said. Others have warts, ridges and fascinating shapes that lead to common names such as pixie cups, British soldier lichen, broom moss, pincushion moss, hair cap moss or train tracks moss.

In addition to mosses, people looking on a finer scale might want to search for liverworts and hornworts, as well as lichens,” he said. “Liverworts can be leafy, in which case they may be hard to distinguish from mosses, or thallose, with a flattened, ribbonlike body. Lichens are actually compound organisms consisting of a fungus growing mutualistically with an alga.”

British soldier lichen grows on a steep bank alongside a road in Georgia
British soldier lichen grows on a steep bank alongside a road in Georgia. Leonard Turner

How to see them

To truly appreciate the forms and textures of miniatures, carry a hand lens on your nature walks. For most purposes, a 10x will provide all the magnification you will need. A 10x lens magnifies an object 10 times its normal size. The focal distance with a 10x, the distance the lens should be from the object, is 1 inch.

To get the best view, hold the lens as close to your eye as you can, and then lean down to within 1 inch of the plant you want to observe. Or you can pick one and hold it an inch from the lens.

You can obtain a hand lens at nature stores or by searching online. One supplier of good hand lenses is

When to see them

“While a few mosses are annuals, probably more than 99 percent of mosses and their allies, and all lichens, are perennial,” Wyatt said. “This means that they are out there to be observed year-round by the discerning eye.”

Even so, some occasions and times might afford better viewing than others. One of those occasions is after a rain. Many miniatures are poikilohydric, which means they are “resurrection plants.”

“Even if they’ve completely dried up, they are able to rehydrate and come back to life within minutes after they become wet,” Wyatt said.

Cladonia pyxidata, known as pixie cups
These pixie cups were being kept alive under controlled conditions. Leonard Turner

This can be done any time of the year in situ if you bring a spray bottle with you or at home in a terrarium if you want to try to grow them yourself.

Although any time of the year is a good time for a nature walk, looking for miniatures in the winter requires a certain strategy.

“Some of us whose main interest is flowering plants enjoy doing mosses and lichens during the winter when the larger plants are ‘sleeping,’ ” Wyatt said.

A warning ... of sorts

Wyatt has some not-so-serious advice for those who want to discover the wonders of this miniature world: “Be careful. You may start moving through nature even more slowly than the already slow pace of a botanist!”

The joke about botanists, if you haven’t heard it, is that if you go for a walk with a botanist, you’ll never get where you’re going.