By Chelsea Jandreau

Several years ago, I interned at an outdoor school in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Like much of California, it tended to be dry for most of the year, with a somewhat wetter late winter and early spring. While there, I spent most of my time as an educator leading groups of sixth graders around the property and exploring nature through varying themes. 

One of those themes was simply titled ‘Discovery’. It was usually a more sensory based exploration experience than the geology or ecology hikes, so we spent our hikes tasting pine needles, making observations about animals and using our sense of touch to explore plants such as the smooth, red bark of the manzanita trees. 

However, one of my favorite sensory explorations revolved around moss and water. Moss grows pretty much everywhere, from the rocks and trees of the most secluded hemlock forest to the middle of a city. When dry, moss feels rough and looks rather dull. We would have students feel the dry moss, make observations, and when they finished, take a step back and watch while the instructor used a spray bottle to wet the moss. The effects were visually evident in less than a minute. It changed from a dull greenish-brown to a vivid green. The texture changed as well and it became softer as the moss absorbed the water. 

It was such a simple demonstration and it sounds unexciting when you describe the whole process, but it was a hit every time. Something about the way that just a tiny bit of water caused such an obvious change so quickly was fascinating to watch in real time. 

You don’t have to live in an arid place to see the difference water can make on the plant life around you. One of my favorite experiences is walking into the woods during the spring or summer immediately after it has rained. Everything feels renewed and awake. The small patches of moss to the largest oak trees are vibrant and verdant.

For me, walking into that place of abundance feels almost magical, like you are walking into a fairytale or as if you have been transported into the world of some epic fantasy novel. Walking along a moss-lined trail with the sounds of water dripping from the green leaves above is such a wondrous experience and I hope I never get tired of it. I’m lucky to now live in an area where we get rain on a regular basis and get to see this phenomenon so frequently.

However, when I begin thinking about this visual change, it brings up some questions. Does it just look greener because of the water on the surface, or is something actually happening inside of those plants to make a change in their appearance? For moss, the quick change has to do with how they absorb water. Mosses, as well as many lichens, do not have roots or the waxy cuticle layer that many other plants do and instead, they take in water directly through their leaves. This can then immediately absorb the water into their cells through osmosis.

The larger plants tend to be vascular, so they take up water through their roots and transport it through the stem and into the leaves.  These plants may appear greener for a few different reasons. The light refraction in the water droplets on the leaf surface can make the leaves appear brighter. 

However, there is also likely something happening inside the leaf. It seems obvious to state that plants need a sufficient amount of water to grow, but as we have seen with the moss, it really does make a huge difference in how they look at any given moment. For example, I have several house plants that need varying amounts of water, but the Peace Lily is by far the most dramatic plant I own. Whenever I accidentally let it go a day too long without watering, it droops in a spectacular fashion, but a little water will perk it up to its former glory within hours. 

Trees, grass and bushes in the wild are also affected when extra water appears in the soil. Like my Peace Lily, when water is abundant, they can take that water and shuttle it up to the leaves, encouraging the busy process of photosynthesis. However, as the plants soak up water, they are also pulling minerals into their roots. One of these necessary minerals is nitrogen. One theory is that rain water is pulling nitrogen along with it into the plants. Plants use nitrogen in various ways to help it grow, but nitrogen is also a component of chlorophyll, which is the pigment that makes leaves look green and helps it absorb sunlight.

Regardless of whatever combination of light, nitrogen and water makes these plants turn into a green wonderland after a rainstorm, I will continue to admire the visuals. Like others, I tend to take plants for granted occasionally, so I appreciate when nature does its thing to make the world a little more magical and encourages some questions and new ideas along the way.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information is online at or by calling (716) 569-2345.