Haircap moss - The most important species at a glance

Today we talk specifically once again about haircap moss. If you have already read the article about 11 mosses for closed terrariums, you will remember that two different types of haircap moss were mentioned there. These are the common haircap moss and the beautiful haircap moss. In this article we will look again at the very specific differences and what other representatives of the haircap mosses there are. This includes the external characteristics, the past and present use, the places where they were found and any stories that have been formed over the centuries about these mosses. We'll also take a look at other haircap mosses that you can use for your closed terrarium.

Disclaimer: Many of these mosses don't have official names in English, only in Latin. Some of them also have very little information about them in English, but a lot in German. I wrote this article in German first and translated it afterwards. Some of these mosses' names may be made by up me to enhance the reading flow, but I'll mark them appropriately.

Common haircap moss

The common haircap moss (Polytrichum commune) is not that much uglier than the beautiful haircap moss. Like all haircap mosses, it belongs to the genus Polytrichum. It also has many other names. It is also known as great golden ladyhair, great goldilocks, and common hair moss. In 2010, it was chosen as the 2010 Moss of the Year by the Bryological-Lenological Working Group for Central Europe (German link). Kind of weird, but also cool, that a moss wins an award every year, isn't it? Translated with (free version)

Closed terrarium common haircap moss great goldilocks polytrichum commune
Common haircap moss has a star form. Source: Hans Hillewaert on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Properties of the common haircap moss

As you can see above, common haircap moss forms a fairly dense cushion that looks like many little stars from above. They are also called leaf stars. The cushion is usually a rich dark green, but can also be blue-green. You can see that a little further down. The stems can grow from 10 cm to 40 cm tall and form spiral protruding leaves. Although they look somewhat like fir branches, they are quite soft. Particularly noticeable are the spore capsules, which are used for reproduction and do not exist all year round. These take on a brown-red to golden-yellow color and are found at the end of the stems.

Common haircap moss blue
Green-blue stems of the common haircap moss. Source: Michael Becker at Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
Common haircap moss spore capsule
Spore capsules of the common haircap moss. Source: Kristian Peters on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Where you can find common haircap moss

You can find common haircap moss all over the planet, even at altitudes of up to 2000 m! However, it is most often found in moist coniferous forests. In general, it is more common in the northern hemisphere. However, it is also native to New Zealand or Australia. There is really hardly a place where this moss is not found.

What common haircap moss is used for

Nowadays, the moss does not have much use, except that it looks beautiful and can be used for decoration. In the Middle Ages, however, it had an important application. Since it is very tensile, it was used to weave so-called moss braids. If you used enough haircap moss and made these braids long enough, you could make entire ship ropes out of it and use them to tie up ships in the harbor.

History of the common haircap moss

Earlier in the Middle Ages, people still believed in sorcery, more precisely sympathetic magic. The common haircap moss was described in the Little Distilling Book (originally Kleines Destillierbuch) by Hieronymus Brunschwig in 1500 for the production of simple remedies. It was also of interest to alchemists because of the golden-yellow color of its spore capsules, to represent the so-called Materia prima. It was commonly believed that objects could be transformed back into a formless base from which better, new objects could be formed. Of interest, in addition to common haircap moss, were various species of sundew and celandine, which could also have a golden-yellow color.

Bank haircap moss

The bank haircap moss (Polytrichastrum formosum) is closely related to its just-mentioned predecessor and visually not so different. Although it obviously has a more "beautiful" name, it has unfortunately never been Moss of the Year. Hopefully soon! By the way, in German it is also called beautiful lady's hair moss.

Closed terarium haircap moss polytrichum formosum
Bank haircap moss. Source: Alexander Klink at Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

Properties of the beautiful haircap moss

Visually, this moss is also not dissimilar to the common haircap moss. It takes on a similar color, has similar looking stems and also the spirally attached leaves hardly differ. However, in terms of height, a difference is already noticeable here. The beautiful haircap moss grows only about 5 cm to 15 cm high. For a moss this is already high, no question. But it does not come close to the common haircap moss with 40 cm.

This moss also forms spore capsules. With these it can happen, however, already with light touches that they burst open and release a true spore rain. This can cause quite an eye-catcher in a closed terrarium every now and then! By the way, the stems here are also called seta, or capsule stems.

Beautiful haircap moss spore capsules
Spore capsules of the beautiful haircap moss. Source: Kristian Peters on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Where to find beautiful haircap moss?

Just like the common haircap moss, you can find it especially in the northern hemisphere, but actually all over the planet. In mountains it can be found wherever there are trees. Above them you will not find it. In Europe it is one of the most common mosses in forests. It tolerates very low light conditions and likes it moist, but not wet!

Juniper haircap

The next representative of the haircap mosses, and also the first not found in the original list of 11 mosses, is the Juniper haircap (Polytrichum juniperinum). Contrary to what the name might suggest, it is not related to juniper berries and does not bear berries itself. So you can't make gin from this moss either. Too bad.

Juniper haircap
Juniper haircap forms larger leaf stars. Source: Juni at Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Properties of the juniper haircap

The leaves of this moss are larger than those of its congeners, as you can see by the thicker leaf stars. It remains generally smaller and bushier than the species mentioned so far and reaches heights of about 2 cm to 7 cm. This makes it very suitable for closed terrariums, as it will not overgrow everything. Sometimes the leaves are slightly reddish at the ends, which can look quite fancy.

When this moss is dry, the leaves lie close to the stems. Only when wet do they take on their typical star shape. This can be a good indication in your closed terrarium whether your water cycle is in order.

Where to find it

This moss is even more widespread than its congeners and is native to both flat plains and steep mountains. It doesn't matter if they are tropical mountains or the highest points of the Alps. The moss is super hardy and also likes to grow on dry sandy soil in full sun. Only lime it does not tolerate at all. So if you use it in your closed terrarium, you should refrain from tap water and use distilled water or rainwater.

Wikipedia also states that this moss is often found on railroad tracks. But please watch out for passing trains if you should go looking there!

Glass haircap moss

This is another name I had to make up. This time there wasn't even an official name in German, but a few inofficial ones. In German the terms glass hair haircap moss and hairy lady's hair moss. Sometimes moss names do amaze me. Think back to the bulky wrinkle brother. The scientific name of the glass hair moss is Polytrichum piliferum, which makes it sound a bit more serious.

Polytrichum piliferum glass haircap moss
Polytrichum piliferum is small and spiky. Source: Michael Becker on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Properties of the glass haircap moss

As you might notice, there's a trend developing here. The more mosses we look at, the smaller and bushier they look. This moss rarely grows larger than 3 cm and is relatively loose and not as dense as the other mosses here. Color-wise it is blue-green, dark green or even brown-green. It's not quite as visible in the picture above, but if you look closely, you can see that the star spikes amount to glass hairs. That's where the unofficial name comes from.

Polytrichum piliferum glass haircap moss
The glass hair moss' blossom. Source: Anghy on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The moss can also bear a red flower, which can look very nice when the entire moss lawn is covered with these little red dots!

Where to find glass hair moss

Just like all the others so far, this moss is found all over the globe. That even includes Antarctica! Similar to carnivorous plants, it grows wonderfully in nutrient-poor soils. Examples of this include sand, rocks, or even boggy soils. This makes this moss quite suitable for closed terrariums with carnivorous plants. Full sun and also complete dryness do not bother this moss either. In case you frequently hang out among dunes or on beaches, you have certainly encountered some.

Strict haircap

As quickly as the trend arose, so quickly it was broken again. We conclude with an again somewhat larger moss, namely the strict haircap (Polytrichum strictum), which is also called bog haircap moss. This moss has quite a bit of color to offer and can add quite a fresh touch to an closed terrarium.

Strict haircap moss polytrichum strictum
Strict haircap resembles a flower meadow. Source: Kristian Peters on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Properties of the strict haircap

As you can see, it resembles a meadow of small red-yellow flowers. Together with the fresh green shade, it makes any closed terrarium look fresh and energetic. As already mentioned, this moss breaks our set up trend and is a bit bigger again. The stems reach sizes from 10 cm to 15 cm. It is important to note here that this is the male plant and not the female. The female plant does not have these flower-like stems. By the way, these stems are called antherid stems. The female plants can also look quite pretty, but are not so eye-catching.

Strict haircap female polytrichum strictum
The famel strict haircap is also pretty, but not quite the eye-catcher. Source: Kristian Peters on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Where to find strict haircap moss

This haircap moss grows especially in raised bogs among and on other sphagnum mosses, but also in other moist and acidic places. This makes it just as suitable for a closed terrarium with carnivorous plants, and it looks great next to them. It is mostly common in the northern hemisphere, but occurs sporadically in the southernmost part of South America.

If you're looking for it, you'll probably get lucky in almost any bog.

Earlier use as a good luck charm

Some findings indicate that this moss was once used as a good luck charm and also to drive away evil spirits. For this purpose it was stuffed into cracks between houses. Thus, evil spirits could not claim these cracks for themselves. Sounds logical, doesn't it?

But more pragmatically, this moss was also used to make brushes and brooms, which is a bit more plausible. Nowadays it serves as after all great decoration for a closed terrarium.


Today you've learned a few things about the most important species of haircap moss. The glass haircap moss stops growing at just under 3 cm and forms beautiful red flowers that can cover the entire moss lawn. Strict haircap moss, on the other hand, features bright yellow, flower-like stems that can mimic a meadow in a closed terrarium. The largest haircap moss is the common haircap moss and grows up to 40 cm tall. For a spore rain, you're good to go with the beautiful haircap moss. Many of them have additionally had spiritual significance in the past or have been used for practical purposes.

For other suitable plants for your closed terrarium, check out this article here.

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