General – olive green, yellowish or reddish green; stems creeping, 2 – 20 cm long, stems and branches reddish, often with branches on branches; current year’s growth arises from near middle of previous year’s branch, producing feathery ‘fronds’ in step form; forms springy mats.
Stair-step MossLeaves – 2 – 3 mm long, oval, smooth-edged, wide base, narrows abruptly to tip.
Sporophytes – uncommon; stalk red-brown, 1 – 3 cm long; capsules brown, inclined, 1.5 – 3 mm long, with long beak on lid.
Soil, humus, decaying wood; in wide range of forest habitats; also in moist thickets and tundra; very common and widespread across Northwestern Ontario’s boreal forest; circumpolar.
Stair-step moss often grows in abundance with big red stem. Less vigourous stair-step moss specimens could be confused with big red stem, but stair-step moss is usually twice-branched, has many hair-like paraphyllia on its stems, and is not as shiny as big red stem. Stair-step moss is the most common moss in the boreal forest. It is also our most northern feathermoss, extending well in to the Arctic.
Those who know stair-step moss from warmer, moister climates may be surprised to discover the less robust, once- to twice-branched specimens of the boreal forest. Stair-step moss is the only moss with a step-like arrangement of branch clusters. You can estimate the age of a plant by counting its ‘steps’ – a new level is produced each year. Large quantities of this beautiful feathermoss have been used as green carpets in floral exhibitions. The genus name Hylocomium, from the Greek hyle, ‘wood’ and mnium, an ancient name for a moss, means ‘moss of the forest’. Splendens is the Latin word for ‘shining’; although stair-step moss is seldom glossy, it is indeed splendid.