© Sarah Carter 2010
Mosses under threat / underwear stripped off / Cornish hedges a haven / flail damage to
mosses / shady hedge mosses and liverworts / ferny fans and fairy hats / silver stars, swans
and survivors / lichens in Cornish hedges / dogs' fangs, crabs' eyes and burnt jam tarts /
ancient beards and piskies' egg-cups / fungi in Cornish hedges / black buns, golden frills, brown
ears and dripping ink / ferns in Cornish hedges / squeakers, wigs, shuttlecocks and fishbones.
Probably most people take mosses for granted, and some, encouraged by the chemical
industry, may actively wage war on them. Even those who like the soft greenness of moss may
only notice three basic kinds - the feathery ones, the furry ones and the little cushions - and
leave it at that; yet there may be an estimated 1,000 species in Britain, with unknown species
still to be discovered. Besides the well-publicised and disastrous plunder of peat bogs, mosses
are under stress. They are in difficulties
in the modern farmer's fields, are
cleaned from towns and literally hard
pressed in the visited countryside by the
trampling of feet and the friction of
tyres. Like the wild flowers, they
rapidly disappear under the modern
curse of inappropriate soil enrichment.
The wholesale replacement of old
slates, tiles and thatch with new, less
moss-friendly roofing has wiped out
untold acres of old colonies and their
vast populations of insects for the birds
and bats - a habitat loss which is
An undisturbed woodland Cornish hedge thickly coated
generally unrecognised. Commercial
with mosses.
firms now exist to remove moss from
the roof, while gardeners get rid of it
unnecessarily. Mosses are stripped from
the wild for the floral trade, recklessly
destroying ancient ecosystems. At the
least level, people idly pick and peel
moss with their fingers for no reason at
There are two main causes of this
ignorance and persecution. Firstly, the
most we can see with the naked eye is
that some of the feathers, furs and
cushions look a little different from
others, which doesn't make them seem
Kindbergia praelonga, a very common moss that will
particularly interesting. With the aid of
survive where others have disappeared.
a magnifying lens, a whole new world of
exquisite little gems opens to our view. Secondly, the mosses' lack of common names has
condemned them to obscurity. A new directive has belatedly tried to make up this lack, but a
long list of this or that feather-moss is not very helpful. They do have wonderful proper
names; Rhytidiadelphus and Pseudoscleropodium, for instance, roll magnificently off the tongue,
and many of the full names, such as Dicranella heteromalla and Campylostelium saxicola sound like
poetry. The thing is not to be afraid of them, take them a syllable at a time, and remember
that 'ch' is pronounced 'k', as in "headache" - which you may think the effort of understanding
them will give you, but take it steadily and it won't.
Mosses are the first noticeable layer in the green clothing of nature, the earth's vest
and underpants as it were. They are an ancient heritage, one of the early 'fossil' life forms still
in existence, among the first visible colonisers of any bare place, and if undisturbed may live
almost indefinitely. Their spores are so light they are blown by the four winds all around the
globe, and as soon as they alight on something suitable they will grow if the climate is right. If
there is a concrete gatepost in a Cornish hedge in an acidic granite area, the mosses on it will
be more lime tolerant, and may differ in species or growth from those on the stones of the
hedge alongside.
This spore reproduction gives mosses a big advantage, yet habitats are losing diversity
and quantity (as with so many other wild species) due to our altering the conditions in which
they thrive. By draining land, enriching soils, polluting air, planting or felling trees, renewing
roofs, spreading concrete, continuously cropping fields, flailing hedges, watering gardens with
moss-killer, cleaning with pressure hoses, and tearing up moss to make decorations that go
into the dustbin after Christmas, the green velvet underwear is stripped off. With it go the
primitive creatures it shelters, a busy base in the food chain. Mosses are a forest - miniature in
height, but designed to be vast in extent. They hold many times their own weight of water
and are as much a part of the earth's sponging, cooling and humidifying system as are the
trees overhead. The only thing that they require from us is to be left alone. They are at the
same time incredibly persistent, and incredibly vulnerable.
In 1883 Henry Marquand reported in Science Gossip on all the mosses he found in one
day's walk in West Cornwall, taking in bog, heath and woodland, along with the hedges and
streams on the way. Following in his footsteps a hundred and ten years later, nearly all his
mosses were found in the same places, but now hemmed in to tiny fragments by the things
people have been doing in the last fifty years. The sphagnum bogs have been destroyed by the
growth of dropwort following enrichment by agricultural run-off, and by the spread of willow,
bamboo and gunnera planted there. Only the few remaining ancient sphagnum tussocks at
one of his locations still support some charming little mosses and liverworts, enduring to the
last. The heathland has been ruined by heavy cattle-grazing, accidental burning and the
rampant spread of rhododendron. On the grazed area the rapid carpeting of one moss, the
nitrogen-loving lawn pest Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus, is a classic case of diversity loss by the
removal of competition and enrichment of soil. Marquand's 'air cushions' of spectacular
heath mosses, still there in 1960, have now gone. On the rocky hilltop the small survivals are
only where sightseers cannot tread.
Forty years ago Marquand's wood was a sort of British rain forest; one narrow path
wound its way through, along which people carefully walked in single file, thrilled by the
beauty all around, the tree-trunks heavily bearded with moss, the whole woodland floor a
mass of bluebells, ferns and luxuriant mosses, the tree canopy an echoing choir of birdsong.
Today that exotic tree-bark moss flora is shrivelled and the floor is of beaten earth, the treeroots exposed and worn, the birds flown, as the noisy public races around trampling all over
the place with children, dogs and mountain bikes. Incredibly this loss of respect for nature has
eliminated ancient ferns with roots the size of tree stumps and six-foot fronds, and mosses like
great green embroidered pillows. Sparse whiskers of half-dead moss, stunted bluebells and
small ferns now survive only where the banks are so steep that a human foot cannot tread.
This is where Cornish hedges with their near-vertical faces come in, a much needed
haven for mosses. Nearly all grow on stone, earth, living tree bark or dead wood, the basic
constituents of a Cornish hedge. Here rooftop mosses, marsh and bog mosses, arable mosses,
woodland mosses and heath mosses can grow side by side, or above and below each other, a
wonderful example of the Cornish
hedge's versatility.
Many grow
unexpectedly, as the hedge mimics their
preferred habitat. Mosses which 'by the
book' are found on occasionally-wetted
riverside rocks will happily thrive on top
of a stone hedge, washed by the rain and
mist, while ephemeral arable mosses will
appear in hedgeside rabbit or badger
digs. Cornwall's climate, too, is beloved
by mosses. Most of the two or three
hundred common moss species and fifty
or so of the common liverworts that
Mosses love the damp, rainy Cornish climate.
appear in Cornwall will grow in Cornish
hedges, and nobody knows how many of the less common.
The quality of recording in Cornish hedges is typified by the Cornwall database
entries in the year 2001 for Polytrichum mosses.
Polytrichum commune
128 records, 1 in hedges
P. formosum
P. juniperinum
P. piliferum
Polytrichum species unidentified 53
The startling contrast between 50% of unidentified and only 1% of identified species noted in
hedges clearly shows that the more expert botanists have not studied Cornish hedges; a
conclusion backed by a breakdown of the available figures for mosses and liverworts as a
whole. It does seem incredible that a treasure-house of mosses such as the Cornish hedge has
been so disregarded, except rarely by the interested amateur naturalist. Even here in the
hedges where they should have been safe, the beleaguered mosses have been under attack and
no one seems to have noticed.
Mosses, unlike many other forms of life, only have to be offered the landfall and they
will arrive. A front-garden Cornish hedge that had been annually treated with weed-killer
until all herbaceous growth ended, produced a surprising number of moss species after the
spraying ceased. Where hedges have been left alone or traditionally managed, mosses still
grow in variety and profusion. Where the flail has raged, losses and imbalance are the result.
The smothering and enriching effect of the flail-mulch is the prime offender, wiping out many
of the tiny mosses of the stone and earth, as well as the beautiful heathland kinds. The thick
spread of ivy that follows the flail eliminates and prevents mosses except where stones have
been torn out of the hedge, leaving a deep earthy cavity in which a few common lightshunning species may grow. Flail-induced mats of gorse and blackthorn on the face of the
hedgebank, together with rank growth of weeds from the mulch-enriched hedge-bottom soil,
discourage nearly all but the tolerant and very common kinds such as Kindbergia praelonga, a
pretty filigree fern-like green moss. This
moss grows on the soil and detritus in
shady corners of gardens, and on miles of
spoiled Cornish hedge nowadays where
used to be many other mosses.
Brachythecium rutabulum is another vigorous
species that, like nettles, 'follows man',
enjoying soil enrichment.
there is lightly dappled shade the thick
shaggy pelt of this large-leafed yellowishgreen moss covers stones and earth,
trunks of bushes and damp dead
Thick covering of ivy induced by the flail has done away
branches impartially. Bryum capillare and
with many pretty heath mosses on this Cornish hedge.
Mnium hornum are other very common
mosses which revel in the flail's over-enrichment of earthy pockets in the hedge. This
imbalance puts paid to diverse moss communities, those mingled tapestries of fronds and
velvety mats and cushions, often embroidered with little dots of their hair-stemmed fruits, like
tiny bells or vases or birds' beaks or gnomes' hats, that so prettily arrange themselves over the
stones and earth when allowed to do so. Bejewelled with the diamonds and pearls of a
Cornish mist they are lovely to see. Take a good strong magnifying glass in your pocket next
time you walk along a path beside a stone hedge on a damp spring day, and you will wonder
why people take mosses for granted.
The differing sites and aspects of Cornish hedges ensure a wide range of moss species,
from the damp and shady to the dry stone hedge, with those in between harbouring an
astonishing mixture of mosses. In the valley hedge will be found the typical woodland-floor
and tree-bark species of Kindbergia, Brachythecium, Mnium and Isothecium. In the very damp
shady hedge along with the shining foil-like Isopterygium elegans may be found the tall slender
female stems of Plagiomnium undulatum with the shorter, more flamboyant male, and more
unusual species such as Hookeria lucens with translucent leaves so large it may be mistaken for a
liverwort. Magnified, the leaves appear to be cut out of pale green net, and the fruit stems are
glossy scarlet. Another that looks rather like a liverwort is Homalia trichomanoides, its flat
transparent fronds hanging on damp tree-boles low down in the wetter hedge.
Liverworts, too, are abundant in the Cornish hedge, not all looking like those slightly
repulsive objects the word liverwort suggests, that grow on the soil in ill-drained gardens.
Many such as Scapania and Diplophyllum species have a frilly moss-like appearance, while the
purplish brown Frullania encrusts the granite rocks and ivy stems with its delicate clinging
fronds, or makes dark circular patches on the smooth bark of hedgetop sycamores. The
dainty Lophocolea look like pale ice-green fairy necklaces in the mosses at the hedge's foot.
Where there is a ditch the frosty fronds of L. bidentata contrast exquisitely with the glittering
bright-green Brachythecium rivulare or yellow Calliergonella
In hedges with a shady stream alongside, the more
robust wet-loving mosses may be found. One that has been
known by its English name is Catherine's moss, Atrichum
undulatum; the tall stems arise from an underground rhizome
and are topped with long wavy leaves, sharply-toothed. Its
elegant fruit capsule has a long-beaked lid often turned up
like an avocet's beak. Thamnobryum alopecurum also arises on
woody stalks from a horizontal creeping stem and looks like
a forest of little trees. Here too in the mud may be found
the tiny flat sheathed fronds of Fissidens all bending in one
direction as if windblown. F. curnovii, as it name shows, is
special to Cornwall. Similarly rare elsewhere in Britain,
Fontinalis squamosa var. curnowii may attach itself under water
to the hedge grounders where these stand along a stream.
Other specialist “mountain mosses” grow where spring
Plagiomnium undulatum showing
water drips between hedge stones.
female (left) and male stems.
Easily seen are the beautiful
hedgebank mosses like fronds of
miniature ferns. Thuidium tamariscinum is
particularly noticeable with its stiff
arching light-green fern-shaped fans like
tamarisk sprays from which it is named.
Another, Homalothecium sericeum, with the
pretty English name of silky wall feather
moss, has a bright satiny sheen on the
yellowish regularly-shaped feathery tips.
It grows tightly stuck down to the
surface; a favourite site is a concrete
gatepost, where it will make a roughly
Hypnum cupressiforme, a common moss of the Cornish
circular patch as big as a dinner plate.
hedge, looks like a mat of small neatly-plaited braids.
Also commonly seen in hedges is Hypnum
cupressiforme, with its neatly groomed and plaited appearance, the smooth leaves with their tips
curling inward, giving a blunt rounded outline to the fronds like its namesake cupressus and
appearing as a mat of tiny pigtails or braids. This moss has a
wide variation of colour and size in the branching growth, from
the thread-like H. cupressiforme var. filiforme and the pale yellow
var. ericetorum, through the green type to the strong bronze-tinted
var. tectorum and even chunkier var. lacunosum; in fact the
difference has caused some bryologists to place the first two
under separate species. New research with DNA analysis may
confirm or reverse many such changes of name, but the
appearance of the moss in the hedges remains the same.
A conspicuous moss is the mouthful, Pseudoscleropodium
purum, a giant that thrusts its long branching smooth yellowygreen fingers through the short turf and around the bramble or
gorse roots on the hedge. Less frequently the pale yellow, redstemmed soft filigree fronds of Hylocomium splendens may be found
in heathy hedges, or the stout branches, dishevelled and spiky
like a wet dog's coat, of Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus, now dubbed big
Pseudoscleropodium purum
shaggy-moss. All the Rhytidiadelphus species look as if they have
been pulled through a hedge backwards.
Bare stones and earth on the hedgebank are
home for characteristic little mosses of stone and soil,
notably Tortula and Bryum species. Orthotrichum, Ulota
and Zygodon grow on both rock and the branches of
hedgetop trees and bushes, a favourite being the
wrinkled bark of elder. Some of these mosses have
fruits like a group of tiny Cornish piskies in pointed
hats, perhaps actually tipped and trimmed with bright
red; while Bartramia, which will grow either on rock or
Orthotrichum pulchellum.
soil, has fruits like little green apples. Among other
mosses of the earth between the stones of a Cornish
hedge are Barbula, Didymodon and Weissia. Many of the
short cushion or mat-forming mosses look much alike
until viewed under strong magnification, when
surprising features spring into view. The Tortulas are
among those mosses where the mid-rib, or nerve, of the
leaf is extended, so they appear to have a hair or spike
emerging from each leaf-tip; and so does the very
common Bryum capillare, a mass of little bright green
rosettes with its pear-shaped capsules green with
orange round the mouth, each hanging like a bell on its
red stem arising from among them. Tortula truncata's
capsules are tiny goblets with a knobbed lid that lifts up
to let the spores escape. Orthotrichum and Ulota may
have hairy hats on capsules like elegantly fluted urns, or
they may have clusters of brown gemmae like minute
Weissia controversa growing around a
fir cones. Some have curly leaves when dry; Ulota
telegraph pole stay in a Cornish hedge.
phyllantha, very common in Cornish hedges on stones or
bushes, now has the picturesque name of frizzled pincushion. Weissia controversa likes to grow
where a telegraph pole's metal stay is fixed into the hedge. With the rain-drip down the wire
stay, and perhaps influenced by metal salts, it can make vivid green velvety clots of moss here,
a curious instance of Cornish hedge opportunity.
These low-growing mosses have an important place in the hedge's ecosystem, as is
evident on a winter's day when birds are seen pecking into thick beds of Bryum or Barbula to
get at the insects living in it. Wrens, tits and goldcrests tirelessly pick mites among the tiny
mosses, liverworts and algae on hedgetop branches. Blackbirds often tear the Brachythecium
carpet to pieces for its rich haul of snails and grubs. Some micro-moth and lace-bug larvae
feed only on mosses, and many other insect families feed on the rotting matter they contain,
or hunt among them for prey. Some of these families each have more than 200 species, for
instance the soldier-flies, scuttle-flies and springtails. Groundhoppers, like small grasshoppers,
feed and breed in moss, and so does the snowflea Boreus hyemalis, a tiny creature that may be
seen hopping about in snow.
As the hedges climb on to the hills the acid-tolerant heathland mosses appear, and
typically on any hedge from about 100 metres above sea level they will happily co-exist with
woodlanders such as the common Mnium hornum and the ever-present Kindbergia praelonga.
Common heathland mosses are the ones that look like shaggy little prairie grasses blowing in
the wind, principally Dicranum, Dicranella, Ditrichum and Campylopus. These can grow in quite
large patches on the soil capping of the hedge as long as they are not shaded out, or
smothered by flail-debris. Easily recognised is the very common Campylopus introflexus, an
incomer which has gone native since the second world war. The stems grow as little bunches
of grass-like leaves, and at the top of each tuft is a silver star formed by long hairs at the leaftips.
As the hills rise and the hedge is
drier, the noticeable mosses are the
Polytrichums, which look like forests of
small dark green bottle-brushes, often
extensive on the earth top of the hedge.
When fruiting they look like a crowd of
tiny people in pale brown or whitish
woolly hats, which fall off to reveal little
square lanterns. Male plants in spring
appear as a mass of tiny upward-facing
white, red or orange and yellowish
flowers. Polytrichum juniperinum often
grows where hedges have been burnt in
The gossamer effect of silver stars on Campylopus
heathland fires.
So does Ceratodon
introflexus makes it easily recognised in the dry, heathy
purpureus which makes purplish patches
in spring as the massed wine-coloured
stems of the fruiting body appear. Another common moss that follows fire is Funaria
hygrometrica, also abundantly fertile, its arched stems and drooping pear-shaped capsules with
their long beaks as elegant as little green swans.
On the stone hedges exposed to the elements are the real
survivors of the moss world, little grizzled hunchbacks scratching
a living from the bare rock. Typical of these are Schistidium and
Grimmia species, grey, dark green, brown or blackish in colour,
often silvery-looking from the hoary hair-tips of the leaves, and
harsh to the touch when dry. Andraea rothii, now aptly named
dusky rock-moss, is another that grows on bare granite and looks
black when dry. They may be accompanied by the silky goldengreen fronds of Homalothecium sericeum and the tiny silver tassels of
Bryum argenteum, the more drought-tolerant of the feathery and
the furry mosses, or the filigree brown liverwort Frullania
tamarisci. Here, too, the mosses become well mixed with lichens.
One large stone of such a hedge may host half-a-dozen each of
Funaria hygrometrica.
moss and lichen species, growing on the stone or its earthy cap.
Lichens are the product of a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga.
Their means of reproduction, by vegetative structures which detach to form a new plant or by
spores from the fungal partner, is still somewhat mysterious; but it is quite clear that however
they do it, they find it easy in Cornwall. They are very happy with the damp Atlantic climate
and the clean Cornish air, and our hedges may be looked upon as a tailor-made setting for a
'national collection' of lichens. The Cornish hedge provides a perfect home for lichens as it
offers stone, bark and undisturbed earth, their preferred bases. The hedges host the whole
spectrum from the woodland-loving tree-bark 'beards' to the smooth flat crusts like paint on
stone that resist extreme exposure, salty gales and downpours and blistering sun alike.
Many forms of lichen appear
among the stones and bushes of the typical
Cornish hedge, while the drier hedges,
especially those near the sea, can be so
thickly furred and encrusted with lichens
of many species that the surface of the
stone itself is no longer visible. Along the
rab or peat topping of stone hedges an
ancient scree garden of lichens and mosses
often makes a subtly coloured tapestry as it
has grown together there for centuries.
Newly-built hedges will soon acquire their
characteristic lichens, becoming more
luxuriant and diverse as years pass.
The ubiquitous pale greyish- or
Scree garden of Cladonia lichens, Polytrichum mosses
and Polypody ferns on the capping of a Cornish hedge
near the sea.
yellowish-green leafy lichens which
encrust the stones or the hedge-top trees
and branches, their crinkled lobes usually
arranged in a roughly circular shape, are
of the Parmeliaceae family. Flavoparmelia
caperata is among the more common,
forming patches with rounded lobes and
the wrinkled centre looking granular and
yellowish-green. A number of species of
including crottle, Parmelia saxatilis,
traditionally used as a wool dye, make
neatly circular rosettes with their dry leafy
Typical rosette formation of the Parmeliaceae, growing
lobes on the granite in Cornish and stone
with mosses and other lichens on a granite hedge-stone.
hedges. Closely related are Hypotrachyna
species, making formless patches of divided, wavy lobes, greenish- or bluish-grey on the upper
surface and dark, some quite black, on the
reverse, which grow impartially all over
bark and twigs, rocks and soil, so will find
the Cornish hedge a congenial home.
As with mosses, the flail is an
enemy of lichens in Cornish hedges. As its
mulch enriches the soil, tall weeds grow up
from the foot of the hedge, while gorse and
ivy spread sideways in a thick mat
covering the stones. Deprived of light and
air by this heavy growth, the lichens
immediately die. Even the dry heath and
maritime hedges, where the most diverse
This beautiful old Cornish hedge encrusted with many
lichen communities flourish on the open
lichens, mosses and small ferns is threatened by a
thick mat of flail-induced gorse (advancing bottom
stones, are gradually overtaken by this
right) as it spreads across the face of the stones.
tragic curse after years of flailing.
We tend to be as shy of lichens as of
mosses, but they also can be fun to look at with
a magnifying glass. Even the 'splodges of
paint', characterless to the casual eye, reveal
clues to their identity, like the lines and
symbols on maps and manuscripts, when
magnified. A very simple family of lichens is
Lepraria (as in leprosy) which coats bare earth
or damp stones and tree bark on the
hedgebank with patches of what looks like pale
greyish-green powder. At the other extreme is
the dog lichen, Peltigera canina, which makes
The powdery pale grey-green Lepraria growing
on shaded soil where stones have fallen from an
large clusters on the rock and soil of heathy
old Cornish hedge.
hedges; its big wavy greenish-grey leathery
lobes look very distinctive, their pale whitish reverse showing white fur and fang-like teeth.
Some of the smooth lichens have
what looks like scribble writing or
hieroglyphic symbols, usually in the
centre of the roughly circular crust. One
is actually named Graphis scripta and with
others such as Opegrapha vulgata grows on
the smooth bark of hedgetop trees.
The fruiting bodies of many
species look like a lot of tiny jam tarts on
a plate; burnt ones in the case of
Tephromela atra, called black shields, which
grows on granite hedge stones,
Dog lichen Peltigera canina on a dry Cornish hedge.
particularly those very near the sea.
Another lichen of the granite hedge is Ochrolechia parella, known as crab's eye lichen, which has
a mass of these fruiting bodies like buttons tipped out of a tin.
Tephromela atra and Ochrolechia parella on
neighbouring stones in a long-established lichen
community in a Cornish hedge.
A young patch of Opegrapha vulgata growing
with a fine specimen of the liverwort Metzgeria
on bark of hedge-top sycamore.
Often intermingled with the frilly lobes of
Flavoparmelia and Hypotrachyna are the shaggy
lichens that hang from the hedge-top trees like
beards, so the whole of the twigs and branches
are covered with the hoary effect that is a
familiar part of the character of Cornwall; it
enhances the ancient appearance of the
hedges, their arthritic-looking trees like aged
men in conclave 'where the beards wag all'.
One of these is the common Evernia prunastri,
which forms hanging tufts two inches long. Its
branches fork like antlers, and it has a whitish
Sea ivory Ramalina siliquosa bearding the stones
in a dry Cornish hedge near the sea.
powdery appearance.
Other 'beards' are
Ramalina species, of which sea ivory, R. siliquosa,
liberally tufts the rocks in hedges near the sea. Very
luxuriant 'beards' are Usnea species like bunches of tangled
hair or rootlets, hanging down as much as three inches
long; they grow on hedgetop trees and sometimes on the
Another lichen that seems to breathe the very spirit
of Cornwall is the brilliant orange-yellow Xanthoria parietina
which covers old roofs and walls and gives a beautiful
golden look to Cornish villages when the sun shines. It likes
to grow on cement and rocks enriched by seabird
droppings, but will accept most Cornish hedge stone and in
the hedges can give the effect of clusters of deep yellow
flowers clinging to the stones. Then there is the strangely
seaweed-looking Anaptychia which can often be found
growing with these other lichens on coastal hedges.
The lichen Anaptychia runcinata
looks like miniature seaweed.
The rab tops of stone hedges and the drier, heathy
Cornish hedges are the best places to see Cladonia species, which enjoy the open aspect and
acid soil and form intricate communities with
mosses, heath plants and other lichens.
Cladonia consist of a mat of small scales from
which arise the reproductive bodies. Some,
for example C. portentosa, look like a little
forest of bare twiggy trees, or tiny fine stags'
antlers. Others, of which the mealy pixiecup lichen C. chlorophaea is probably the most
common, stand up like tiny trumpets or eggcups. These support the spore-producing
structures, usually around the rim, which
may be brown or red, looking very pretty
with the floury-grey cups. C. floerkeana has
Wide open cups of Cladonia on a dry Cornish
hedge near St Just, a little past the egg-cup stage.
little scarlet knobs on the stalks, a bit like the
egg in the egg-cup; also known as devil's matchsticks.
There are around 1400 recognised British lichens, and it appears that Cornish hedges
have not yet been properly investigated to discover how many of these they harbour. As with
mosses, lichens require non-interference and a damp climate to reproduce, and their preferred
hosts are embodied in the structure and plant life of the hedges; hence Cornwall's hedges are
a rich habitat for these fascinating life forms. Concentrated on bare stone and hedge top
trees, they are probably less vulnerable to flail effects than herbaceous plants, and though not
able to combat ivy-smother may survive in reasonable strength. They are cheerful
opportunists, as the six species growing on a fibreglass Dutton kit car, habitually parked next
to a Cornish hedge, can testify.
Fungi are another generally neglected class, again because they are odd little things
and don't have pretty flowers. Their random and sporadic appearances are a discouragement
to studying them, but they do give an element of thrill; suddenly fungi will materialise in a
hedge where they have not been noticed before. Discounting that silent majority invisible to
the naked eye, the larger kinds of fungus have a fascination of their own, even for the amateur
naturalist. They are cheeky little chaps, popping up from nowhere and as quickly vanishing
again, as if to cock a snook at the world; but even so they deserve better than the regrettable
fashion for "fungus forays" whereby perfectly well-fed people go out to rob them for "fun" and
a "gourmet feast", and no doubt think themselves very clever as long as they don't eat the
wrong kind by mistake. Fungal victims' revenge tends to be uncomfortable and sometimes
fatal. Better to enjoy a higher and more civilised pleasure by simply marvelling at their quaint
forms and mysterious, necessary life, with respect - and stick to eating farmed mushrooms. It
is easy to bring your trophy home in the form of a photograph, which does no harm.
Little enough is yet known of the purpose and action of fungi in nature's scheme, but
that they are fundamental to the life process is well-established, with their intimate web-like
involvement in growth and decay. As with its other forms of life, the Cornish hedge can
uniquely conserve a wide spectrum of types and species. There is an estimate bandied around
that all the fungi in a hectare of typical
meadow would come to about 3,000
kilograms in weight. Whatever interest
applies to meadowland often applies to
a Cornish hedge, and more so; here
are plenty of the substances on which
fungi like to grow, and the hedge
provides a variety of undisturbed
If the hedge is properly
managed, there will also be the
essential periods of non-interference.
Most fungi have the height of their
season from July to November, so will
thrive in a hedge that is correctly
Tubaria furfuracea, a common little fungus of the
trimmed in January or February.
"toadstool" type, growing among the hedge-bottom debris.
In traditional Cornish hedges there has always been a rich pageant of different kinds
of fungi, from classic clusters of big woodland toadstools in shady hedges to the strange little
black "earth tongues" emerging from the peaty capping of exposed stone hedges. Fungi are
clever opportunists with the advantage of universality given to all spore-producing bodies, but
they usually need an undisturbed habitat in which to grow and fruit. Their brief time and
physical frailty make them vulnerable to human activity. Today they are disadvantaged in the
hedges by ill-timed trimming and flail-induced habitat degradation, though some robust
species may be able to survive on the detritus and damaged wood left by the flail. Fungi need
three basic amenities:- dampness, a root-hold in decay, and air-space around their heads. The
heavy flail-induced competition from coarse weeds and ivy is their worst enemy in the
degraded hedge, while many died out in the dehydration of the hedgebank caused by years of
summer flailing.
While the Cornish pisky's toadstool is
familiar to everybody, there are many and
various shapes and colours of fungi. Some
are evident to the most casual glance, such
as the orange-yellow Tremella, with its
suitably Cornish-sounding name (though
it actually means jelly-like), that bubbles
out along decaying gorse branches on the
hedge-top. Many of the fungi of dead or
dying wood are to be found in the hedges,
opportunely feeding on the flail's legacy of
damage and die-back; it even kills the
smaller hedge trees if trimmed too hard
and too often.
characters along dead branches are the black Daldinia concentrica which looks like burnt buns
and is aptly known as King Arthur's cakes, and the rubbery red-brown ear fungus, Auricularia
auricula. The species of trees growing on the hedgetop will affect the kinds of fungi present;
Daldinia prefers to grow on dead branches of ash, Auricularia on elder, while the tiny blue cups
blue-green staining of Chlorociboria
aeruginascens will be found usually on dead oak
twigs lying in the damp hedge. Another curious
fungus is the black Xylaria polymorpha, popularly
named dead men's fingers.
means "many forms", and when young it can
look more like blue tongues sticking out through
the moss on old stumps in the hedge; rather
revolting at all its stages. Often the same stump
will host more than one noticeable fungus,
perhaps the little grey-black forked straps of
Xylaria hypoxilon, known as candle snuff, and a
bracket fungus such as Trametes versicolor, which
has concentric ridges of different colours.
Another common bracket fungus is
Polyporous squamosus, more poetically
named dryad's saddle, which frequently
grows on sycamore in Cornish hedges
instead of its preferred elms since so many
died of the Dutch elm disease.
On the damp side of a Cornish
hedge, in the rich earthy humus at its
base or around the stumps or roots of
trees, may spring masses of the various
ink-cap fungi, such as Coprinellus micaceus
or less commonly C. truncorum, which is
very similar but never has hairs on the
Ink cap Coprinellus truncorum growing on the north
side of a Cornish hedge.
stem. These can be quite spectacular as
they rise in tiers up the side of the hedge.
All the ink-caps have the peculiarity that as they age they deliquesce into a drippy black fluid.
The hedges are also home to the common woodland fungi such as sulphur tuft and brittle cap,
while in the drier hedges many meadow or heathland species may appear.
Taking mosses to be Mother Earth's vest and pants, then ferns are the frills on her
petticoat. They are designed to be worn beneath her floral frock and shrubby overcoat, and
kept modestly in the shade. The traditional Cornish hedge, however, is such an exhilarating
situation that here she dances a can-can, showing the green frills exuberantly high among her
skirts - but only as long as the petticoat itself is hidden in the floral folds. The fern roots need
always to be damp, deep in the stony crevices among the mosses and leaf-litter beneath the
herbage. In this way they can thrive uncharacteristically on the exposed, sunny hedgebank.
Summer trimming soon discourages even the drought-tolerant Polypody as the hedge's earth
core dries out. The flails, if taken too close to the hedgebank side, contact-kill all but the very
small specimens, tearing the whole fern
bodily out of the hedge or smashing off its
top. Ferns, like palms, are not designed to
branch readily, and if the growing tip of the
crown is damaged or removed they find it
easier to die.
Fortunately, like all spore-producing
subjects, they do find it easier to re-colonise,
too, once the murder ceases. On muchflailed hedges, once eased, the fern species
can reappear quite soon, whereas more
than half of the herbaceous species may be
lost. Like mosses, lichens and fungi, ferns
Common polypody fern growing with lichens on a
dry Cornish hedge.
require only a suitable landfall and climate,
as the spores are so numerous and lightly
airborne that they are generally present on the soil. The main reason Cornwall, with its
damp climate, is not one huge mass of mosses, fungi and ferns is that in order to grow, most of
them need three things: a constantly damp soil, not too much competition and no
interference. They have no chance to establish on most of the land utilised by people, but the
Cornish hedge is an ideal home for them as long as it is not closely flailed or trimmed at
wrong times of the year.
Because the spores land from the ambient air, newly-built Cornish hedges may sooner
acquire a normal fern population than a diverse herbaceous flora, which latter relies heavily
on the seed-stocks already contained in the soil with which the hedge is topped when built. If
the land on which the hedge is constructed has been depleted of its native seed by cultivation,
the floral count will be poor and probably consist of docks, thistles, willowherb, chickweed and
suchlike arable opportunists. It may be some years before the fertility falls and the less
aggressive herbaceous species present in the soil or brought by natural seed-dispersal manage
to colonise the hedge. Conversely the moss, lichen and fern count can be quite soon
established, as if by magic, from the constant invisible drift of airborne spores.
The most obvious ferny fronds to be seen in Cornish hedges belong to the ubiquitous
bracken (Pteridium aquilinum), which although known as "fern" to country people is of a
different family from the botanists' favourite ferns and can be recognised by its branching
frond. Bracken is a sore point in association with Cornish hedges as it is one of the species
turned rampant by flailing and has overwhelmed many a Cornish hedge where once, before
the flail was introduced, it took its proper balanced place in the hedge flora.
Hart's-tongue unrolls like carnival squeakers
in spring.
Among the flower-less plants, ferns receive the
most notice with around 35 species recorded as
having been found in Cornish hedges. Hart'stongue has the greater number of hedge records
for any one fern, as given for the year 2001.
Taking the proportion of its hedge records (1097)
to its non-hedge records (4484) and considering
how few hedge records are usually taken - often
only about 1% of the total number of records even
for species commonly to be seen in the hedges the hart's-tongue fern's score of 20% hedge records
is noticeable. This locally abundant and wellloved fern, which unrolls its shining green leaves
like carnival squeakers in spring, is surprisingly
scarce in global terms, being mainly found in the
old Celtic nations of the Atlantic seaboard; so
Cornwall holds a significant proportion of the
world's population, and probably the majority of
those are homed in the hedges. This alone would
seem to put an important obligation on the county
to take proper care of them.
Sharing the hart's-tongue's
eminence for abundance and easy
recognition in Cornish hedges is the
male fern, Dryopteris filix-mas, whose
big green fronds grow in a circular,
arching fan shape. The lady fern,
Athyrium filix-femina, is of similar size
and habit, but the lighter green,
more finely-cut fronds give a
daintier, lacy appearance. These
two ferns, along with the broad
buckler fern, Dryopteris austriaca, and
the soft shield fern, Polystichum
setiferum, are the soonest destroyed
The lady fern is daintier than the male.
by the flail as they are the bigger
and more prominent of the common Cornish hedge ferns. The smaller mountain male fern
Dryopteris orendes is not quite so soon discouraged by being hit by the flails, as its crown is
usually more protected between the hedge stones, but it is sooner overwhelmed by the thick
mat of ivy and gorse induced by the flailing.
Even more handsome, and commonly found in acidic hedges, is the scaly male fern,
Dryopteris affinis. With its large orangey scales and yellowish young fronds it appears gloriously
golden among the pink, blue and white hedge flowers as it unfurls in the May sunshine. The
soft shield fern prefers a basic soil, so more often appears in hedges in the less acidic parts of
Cornwall. It can be distinguished easily from the male fern in spring as it unfurls differently,
reflexing the frond-tip with its pale-backed curls as it opens out, and looking very much like a
lawyer's wig. The broad buckler fern can be distinguished as, instead of the frond growing
closely all the way up its stem like a ladder, there
is a much longer bare length of stem before the
green frond begins, and the papery brown scales
along the stem have a very dark brown blotch in
the middle. Fern scales viewed under high
magnification show fascinating differences in
their patterns of cells. Another large fern which
will grow in Cornish hedges, despite being
supposed to need very boggy ground, is the
ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris. The upright
sterile green fronds grow around the crown in a
perfect ring, another of its descriptive names
being shuttlecock fern, and as the young fronds
unfurl they curl like ostrich feathers.
Abundant along the upper half of many
Cornish hedges and on the rab capping of stone
hedges is the common polypody, Polypodium
vulgare. It is the fern least vulnerable to flaildamage as it prefers a drier situation and it
The big golden scaly male fern uncurling in a
creeps laterally into many small crowns tight to
Cornish hedge in May.
the rocks rather than forming a protruding
stump. Also common in Cornish
and stone hedges is the black
spleenwort, Asplenium adiantum-nigrum,
whose small shiny emerald fronds
with their dark stems are seen among
the stones of the hedge where
competition is less; though this pretty
little fern is disappearing from many
hedges where the flail induces a rank
growth of coarse weeds, ivy and
gorse. Where the hedge is deeply
shaded by trees, usually growing with
the hart's-tongue will be found the
hard fern, Blechnum spicant, with its
Looking down into the shuttlecock formation of Matteuccia
ladder-like sterile fronds lying flat
with the young fronds curling like ostrich feathers.
and the fertile ones like a fish's
backbone standing up. Less easily found are two fragrant ferns, the hay-scented buckler fern,
Dryopteris aemula, and the lemon-scented fern, Oreopteris limbosperma.
Lime-loving ferns such as the maidenhair spleenwort, Asplenium trichomanes, which has
each small frond a double row of tiny round leaves along the wiry black stem, and the rustyback fern, A. ceterach, might occasionally be found in some Cornish hedges but certainly not in
the abundance with which they colonise the lime-mortar in old walls and farm buildings. In
hedges very near the coast the sea spleenwort, Asplenium marinum, may be found. Another less
common one is the lanceolate spleenwort, A. obovatum ssp lanceolatum, with about 10% of its
records given as found in hedges. The author personally, many years ago, saw the forked
spleenwort, A. septentrionale, in a hedge near the cliffs, though this species was not believed to
grow in Cornwall.
One of the interesting aspects of ferns is that occasionally they produce variations, and
as they have been for several thousand years established in Cornish hedges there is always the
chance that these differences may have evolved there; frilly-edged versions of the hart's-tongue
fern, for example, are sometimes to be found in hedges. The enthusiast must be warned
against uprooting. It is a criminal offence to dig up wild-growing species, even common ones,
without the landowner's permission. Even if permission is gained, plants taken out of Cornish
hedges are like wild animals torn from their native home and are distressingly likely to die. It
should not be necessary to say this, but enthusiasts have been known to be one of nature's
enemies, as the notorious Victorians showed by collecting many plants to near-extinction.
Had it not been for the depredations of fern-mania and the more recent slaughter by flail, our
hedges would doubtless today contain many more interesting fern varieties. Those that are
left must be cherished with respect in their long-established habitat, the Cornish hedge.
With thanks to Colin French for taking time and trouble to extract hedge records from his database. Other
source material is from personal observation, using standard field and laboratory textbooks for identification, as
follows:Brightman, F.H. and Nicholson, B.E. The Oxford Book of Flowerless Plants
Lang, M. and Hora, F.B. Collins Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools
Oxford University Press, 1966.
Collins, 1963.
[Continued >
Phillips, R.
Grasses, Ferns, Mosses and Lichens of Great Britain and Ireland
Smith, A.J.E.
The Moss Flora of Britain and Ireland
Watson, E.V.
British Mosses and Liverworts
Pan Books Ltd, 1980.
Cambridge University Press, 1978 and 2nd ed. 2004.
Cambridge University Press, 1994.
The following websites have been helpful and are gratefully acknowledged:
Titles of Occasional Papers available (or forthcoming) on
You are welcome to download any of these papers and photographs for your private use and study. If you use
any of this material in any other way, the copyright holder and the Cornish Hedges Library source must be
Building Hedges in Cornwall
Building and Repairing Cornish Stone Stiles
Caring for Hedges in Cornwall
Check-list for Inspecting New or Restored Hedges in
Check-list of Types of Cornish Hedge Flora
Code of Good Practice for Cornish Hedges
Code of Good Practice for Stone Hedges
Code of Good Practice for Turf Hedges
Comments on the © Defra Hedgerow Survey Handbook (1st
Comments on the © Defra Hedgerow Survey Handbook (2nd
Cornish Hedges in Gardens
Fencing Cornish Hedges
Field Hedges and Margins
Gates and Gateways in Cornish Hedges
Geology and Hedges in Cornwall
Glossary of some Cornish Words used in the Countryside
Hedges in the Cornish Landscape
How Old is That Cornish Hedge?
Insects in Cornish Hedges
Literature Sources
Mediæval Hedges in Cornwall (450AD - 1550)
Modern Hedges in Cornwall (1840 - present day)
Mosses, Lichens, Fungi and Ferns in Cornish Hedges
Post-Mediæval Hedges in Cornwall (1550 - 1840)
Prehistoric Hedges in Cornwall (5,000BC - 450AD)
Repairing Cornish, Stone and Turf Hedges
Risk Assessment Guidance - Building and Repairing Cornish
Roadside Hedges and Verges in Cornwall
Technical Note for Pipeline and Other Cross-country
Technical Note on Hedges for Site Developers in Cornwall
Technical Note for Working on Roadside Hedges
The Curse of Rabbits in Cornish Hedges
The Life and Death of a Flailed Cornish Hedge
The Menace of Rampant Weeds in Cornish Hedges
Trees on Hedges in Cornwall
Unusual Old Features in Cornish Hedges
Who Owns that Cornish Hedge?
Wildlife and the Cornish Hedge
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