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Many of the commonly asked questions are answered here and in the sections below. However, beginners especially should also have a look at our Learning section, where there is advice on how to get started with bryophytes – what equipment is necessary, where to look, how to get help etc.
While all bryophytes are cryptogams, not all cryptogams are bryophytes. Bryophytes are mosses, liverworts and hornworts, while cryptogams are bryophytes plus ferns, lycopods and lichens and could also be used for the algae as well in freshwater and marine environments.
The early botanists didn’t have high power microscopes and just couldn’t figure out how these plants reproduced and where they kept their “flowers” and “seeds”, so they called them crypto-gams – “hidden marriages”. This was in contrast to the flowering plants, in which all the parts were easily visible, and that they called “phanerogams” – phan means visible. (Occasionally people misspell or mispronounce cryptogam as cryptogram – which means secret writing or code).
“Bryophytes” applies to the mosses and liverworts, and the obscure group of hornworts. It doesn’t include lichens, which are really communities, consisting of fungus and algae. It also doesn’t include ferns or lycopods, although they reproduce by spores, nor algae. However, green algae, mosses, liverworts, hornworts, lycopods and ferns are all part of the group of green plants – a lineage of organisms that ultimately shares a common ancestor. The earliest plant to colonise the land was probably something like a liverwort, but the early groups all appeared very quickly, and there are very few fossils, so we still don’t quite know in which order they appeared. But the three “bryophyte” groups – mosses, liverworts and hornworts – share several morphological features, which is why they were grouped together. We now know that these features have an ancient origin, but that the three groups are quite separate, so the term bryophyte is just kept for convenience.
See the About bryophytes page under Learning for more information.
We would particularly recommend the BBS Field Guide, both for those starting out and for more experienced bryologists: Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland. A Field Guide. eds: I.Atherton, S.Bosanquet, M.Lawley. First edition 2010, British Bryological Society. ISBN: 978-0-9561310-1-0. You can purchase a copy directly from the BBS or from selected booksellers.
The Resources section of the website has a page dedicated to books you may want to consider as you progress in your study of bryophytes. These include the more advanced technical floras which you will need for reliable identification of many species:
Also worth mentioning is a little leaflet written by BBS member Sean Edwards, Mosses and liverworts of town and garden, which you can download below. It contains illustrations of some of the most common species and is a good introduction to these and to some of the terminology you will need to understand.Mosses and Liverworts of Town and Garden
Your local library will probably have one or more basic identification guides, but if you have access to a school or university library you will be able to find a wider selection.
The BBS has a comprehensive library with a wide range of general and specialist books, but these are only available to browse in the library itself; there are no facilities for borrowing books. See the BBS Library, Sales and Loans page for details.
Members of the BBS automatically receive copies of both publications, and have access to previous issues online. Visit our Membership page to find out about other benefits and see how to join.Become a member
There is a wide range of microscopes available, and an even greater range of price. For basic identification even some of the small “toy” microscopes can suffice, while at the far end of the range, a fancy research microscope can cost thousands of pounds. However, it is possible to get a fairly decent but basic microscope for about two or three hundred pounds. Camera shops often sell microscopes, and several of the “big-name” microscope companies (e.g. Zeiss, Olympus, Leica, Nikon, Swift) sell microscopes for student or field use. A Google search on “microscopes” provides several options, including second hand and used equipment. Also check the Brunel Microscopes website (http://www.brunelmicroscopes.co.uk/) for a wide range of reasonably-priced microscopes.
Buying a microscope is not to be undertaken lightly, and advice should be sought. However, basic guidelines are that you should buy the best you can afford, and it is much better to buy basic but good quality optics than fancy, poor quality optics. The quality of the lenses is very important, but so also is the quality of the mechanics – it is easy to upgrade optics by buying better quality or additional objectives when you can afford them. It is useful to get both a dissecting microscope (often also called a stereo microscope) and a compound microscope for looking at cellular detail. The dissecting scope should have a range of magnification from 0.4 to 4.5, while for the compound scope, for general identification objectives with magnification ranging from 4.5 to 50 are sufficient. For more critical work (e.g. axillary hairs and oil bodies) an oil-immersion lens with magnification of 100 is useful. Oculars (the lenses in the eyepieces are usually x10, giving a total magnification in the dissecting scope of x4.5 to x45 and in the compound scope x45 to x500 (or x1000 oil). None of the fancy features like phase contrast or darkphase illumination are necessary. A stereo binocular head (two eye-pieces) greatly decreases eye strain if you are going to be using the microscope a lot, and if you are going to use your microscope for illustrating, a drawing arm is invaluable. An eye-piece graticule is very useful for measuring cell length.
The BBS has a microscope for loan to members. Email the librarian at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
A good place to start is with the Vice-county pages on this website, each of which should provide details of any resources available for the county. In many areas, these include published floras that describe the plants known to grow there. Many of these floras either include mosses and liverworts, or are specifically about bryophytes, and many also include distribution maps. Locate your local vice-county in the Vice-county Explorer.
The National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Atlas is another useful resource, not just for bryophytes but for all living organisms. The NBN hosts a database of species records within the UK (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) and the Atlas page provides access to these records. It takes a bit of time to work out how to use it, but you can search specific areas, and filter the results to show just one species, or all bryophyte records. Results can be displayed on a map and/or downloaded in spreadsheet format.
There are several groups of bryologists in different parts of the country that hold regular meetings to look at bryophytes in the field. A list of these groups and contact details can be found under the Local groups category within Events (open the category in the side bar). This is a very good way of learning the local bryophytes from other bryologists in the field – and is also a lot of fun.
You can also go to the national meetings of the BBS, normally held during the spring, early summer and autumn. These meetings are fairly intense, but all members are welcomed regardless of experience. It’s probably a good idea to attend a few local meetings first, but then don’t be daunted by the fact everyone will know more than you! Most members are very friendly and helpful, and there is always a range of abilities at any meeting.
You can search for upcoming meetings under Events, and they are often advertised on our Twitter and Facebook feeds as well.
The British Isles are probably the best known area in the world for bryophytes, with a very high ratio of bryologists to bryophytes, and a lot of active mapping of distribution. However, where there are lots of people – and hence bryologists – the bryophytes tend to be less diverse and there are fewer robust and distinctive species. So a lot of the meetings are held in the bryologically richer but more distant areas because people want to see new stuff. And of course, if you want to see interesting plants, the further north and west you go, the more abundant they are. But that doesn’t mean that there are no interesting bryophytes in the south and east – if you have the knowledge and patience there are many thrilling bryophytes in very unimposing habitats.
Technology in this area is advancing so fast that any recommendations given here are likely to be overtaken within a year or two. However we will offer a few tips.
For photographing bryophytes in the field, it is useful to have a camera that focuses in close – a few centimetres should be suitable.
Most people photograph bryophytes as a record of what they have seen or to help others identify particular species, rather than from an artistic viewpoint (although many of these photos are also very attractive to look at). For this purpose a large depth of field is desirable. In the past this has meant expensive cameras and lots of practice. However with the advent of digital photography came focus stacking. See the question below for more details on this technique.
There are some cameras on the market now which perform in-camera focus stacking i.e. you do not need to download and process images later. The most popular of these at present is the Olympus Tough range – the TG4, TG5 and TG6 models all provide this functionality which, along with being waterproof, small and easy to carry, make them an ideal choice for the bryologist.
As everyone interested in photography knows, the best camera is the one you have on you at the time! So what better than the excellent cameras in many smartphones nowadays. These are ideal for taking habitat photos, and even fairly close-up shots of species.
It is also possible to buy add-on lenses which attach to the phone camera, including macro lenses. These do require a steady hand and/or tripod, and lots of patience to get a decent shot however, and most people prefer to carry a separate camera for close-up work.
It is worth checking out smartphone camera apps though, as these are sometimes better than the native apps. For example at the time of writing this, there is an iPhone app from a company called Moment (who also sell add-on lenses) which is free to download and use, and allows you to control the focus point and exposure – handy for close-ups when the native app rarely seems to understand what you want in focus.
Focus stacking is a relatively new technique which evolved once digital photography had become commonplace. It is a process by which several photos are taken of the same subject, but with different focus points; these are then merged by sophisticated software to produce an image which is in focus throughout.
With most cameras it is necessary to take the set of photos manually, either shifting the focus wheel on the camera between each shot, or maintaining the same focus distance and moving the camera / subject. However some more recent models automate this by providing a ‘focus bracket’ mode. This will automatically take a number of shots, adjusting the focus between shots. The Canon EOS RP is a (relatively) reasonably priced full-frame mirrorless camera which does this quite well.
Some of the most popular focus-stacking software at present includes Helicon Focus and Zerene Stacker, both of which have been around for a long time. However they can be expensive and it’s a good idea to search for reviews and try out software for yourself. There are an ever-increasing number of companies providing this kind of software and competition is high.
It may be worth noting that, at the time of writing, Canon include their Digital Photo Professional software with sales of DSLR cameras, and from DPP version 4 this includes focus stacking functionality. If you have a Canon DSLR, it may be worth trying to see if your camera is supported.
Bryologists have always liked to record what they see through the microscope as well, whether it be as a record of a particular specimen or to send photos to other bryologists for help with identification. Originally this would have been with a sketch but nowadays of course it’s much easier to use a camera. The most basic way to do this is to hold a point-and-shoot camera or smartphone over the eyepiece and some people get very good results doing this. It’s usually necessary to zoom in with the camera in order to fill the viewfinder. The Nikon Coolpix range was renowned for being good to use for this, but has now been largely superseded by better options. It was always a bit fiddly to locate your subject in the viewfinder, then hold it steady while you focussed and took the shot.
Many companies now sell adapters to attach digital cameras to your microscope. This resolves the problem of centring the image and holding the camera steady, and also allows you to use an SLR instead of a compact camera. Note that the adapter you use is normally fairly specific to the camera, or at least the camera type.
It is worth considering, when buying a microscope, getting one with a trinocular head as this enables you to leave the camera and adapter attached permanently to your microscope. It is also worth asking at the time you purchase a microscope, what the options are for taking photos. A company like Brunel Microscopes will explain the different options and let you try them out before you buy. Using an adapter to connect a camera you already own to your microscope is a relatively cheap and easy solution.
If you take a lot of photos then it’s worth looking at USB cameras. A USB camera will slot into a trinocular eyepiece via a simple adapter, and connect to your computer via a USB cable. These cameras usually come with software which runs on your computer and allows you to see the image being recorded by the camera and to control the camera. It is possible to capture still images, record video – and with some software to add scale bars and other measurements to your images.
Many of the images on this website were taken using a camera from a company called Touptek, whose software (ToupView) also has built in focus-stacking and other image processing functionality.
If you search the Internet you will find a few websites and books dedicated to this subject, although many are aimed at American readers. Probably the best known of these is Mossin’ Annie’s Mountain Moss, where you can find lots of advice and can even purchase moss for your garden (probably only practical if you live in the US).
Most libraries will also have books about Japanese gardens, in which mosses are a significant feature.
However you can make a good start by downloading Michael Fletcher’s Moss Grower’s Handbook (below). This book was written to document the author’s first hand experience of growing bryophytes both indoors and outdoors, and contains an absolute wealth of practical information. Michael maintained a large moss collection over many years, containing some of the most rare and threatened species in the UK (collected under license). Although not specifically aimed at moss gardening, it does contain a lot of useful tips – and if you are interested in growing moss indoors, perhaps just to develop capsules so that you can identify a specimen, then this is the book for you.Moss Grower's Handbook
Bryophytes are overlooked by most people – probably because they are small, and actually quite challenging to name. Unfortunately this means that the demand for identification courses is low, and very few organisations provide them. Of these, the Field Studies Council (FSC) has historically run the most, and regular, identification courses for mosses and liverworts – although we don’t know what will happen post-Covid.
Other organisations run occasional or more specialised courses and we have listed the ones we know about.Go to the FSC website Check our list of Course providers
The BBS can provide funding to support small projects and surveys. Check the conditions on the Apply for a grant page, where you can also download an application form.