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Goblin’s Gold

Are you afraid of the dark? 

Walking through a forest in upstate New York, you come across a damp, dark cave. You are keen to move past it, fearful of what lies within. You hurry forwards when out of the corner of your eye an eerie greenish glow appears. Are you seeing things? What could this be – some kind of toxic ooze? No… in the cave lies goblin’s gold.

Photo of Goblin's Gold (Schistostega pennata)

Photo credit: @jerebarker via iSpot.

Goblin’s gold (Schistostega pennata), also known as luminous moss or luminescent moss, is the only species of the genus Schistostega. The plant is native to parts of northern Europe, East Asia, and areas in the Pacific Northwest and Northeastern United States. 

While you won’t find this goblin’s gold in Gringotts Wizarding Bank, you might find it in old cellars, mine shafts, animal burrows, caves, and sometimes in the shaded pockets of overturned tree roots. Goblin’s gold will grow on soil, decaying wood, or even bare rock. Schistostega pennata struggles to compete with other species of moss, but thrives in these types of moist, low-light habitats. It has adapted to withstand and even prosper in low light by utilizing spherical cells that act as lenses, drawing in and concentrating sunlight for photosynthesis.

[Goblin’s gold]  is unlike any other moss. It is a paragon of minimalism, simple in means, rich in ends. So simple you might not recognize it as a moss at all. The more typical mosses on the bank outside spread themselves to meet the sun. Such robust leaves and shoots, though tiny, require a substantial amount of solar energy to build and maintain. They are costly in solar currency. Some mosses need full sun to survive, others favor the diffuse light of clouds, while Schistostega lives on the clouds’ silver lining alone. – Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses.

Photo of Schistostega pennata leaves.

Schistostega pennata leaves.

Sensitive light-reflecting filaments within the moss give off the goblin’s gold’s characteristic greenish-gold glow. Schistostega pennata is sometimes referred to as a pioneer species due to its ability to colonize newly available habitats. This species spreads largely through sexual reproduction thanks in part to its glowing spores. Fauna like spiders, mites, beetles, birds, mice, frogs and ants may serve as dispersal agent for the spores from physical contact with or ingestion of the moss. It is believed that these species may be attracted to the light emitted from the goblin’s gold in order to aid in its spread.

Because Schistostega can only survive in specific habitats, there are a number of threats to the survival of this rare species. Anything that might change or destroy the damp and dark conditions the moss needs could prove harmful. Some examples include fire and the removal of fallen trees. 

Goblins are mythical creatures described as being small or grotesque with mischievous and greedy behavior especially towards glittering valuables like jewelry or gold. What is frightening, more than the malicious actions of goblins or what lies in dark caves, is the threat of extinction of this rare moss. 

Photo of Goblin's Gold (Schistostega pennata).

Photo Credit: Malcolm Storey.

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Laura Todd RiverSmart Program Coordinator, Maryland & DC Office

Laura is the Program Coordinator for the RiverSmart Homes program, coordinated in partnership with the DC Department of Energy and the Environment. She works on the permeable paver program.

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