Jessica Paull

Jessica Paull

I grew up in Nevada’s Great Basin Desert, so plants were never a significant part of my daily life. The occasional bush would hide snakes or scorpions and should be avoided, and a rare tree was just a respite from the sun. My upbringing meant that flowers, trees, and botanical things were largely alien and unusual things to me. Luckily for me, I’ve always been drawn to things that are both alien and unusual.

Fungi are still some of the world’s most mysterious, fascinating organisms. Naturally, I thought that I would find my calling in studying fungi. With conviction, I came to New Zealand to pursue this dream.

I signed up for the first fungal foray I could find, and it was there I met the incredible John Steel. He must have seen some potential in me, and graciously continued to take me around and show me New Zealand plants and fungi. I was focused on fungi, so that was the main point of our trips at the time. However, mushrooms are impermanent and seasonal. What would we look at in between the spring and autumn months? The large, vascular plants are stunning, but as I said, the mainstream has never been where my interests lie. So, we started looking at bryophytes. I must admit, I wasn’t enamoured at first.

We started by playing a game: liverwort or moss. John would show me a bryophyte he’d found in the bush and ask me to identify which category it belonged to. I’d always guess, and I was always wrong. I couldn’t understand what John was so clearly seeing in these tiny plants that I was missing. So, I looked closer. That was the beginning of the end.

The closer I looked, the more diversity and beauty I found. These tiny plants held so much unexpected magnificence, hidden away from us because of their size and a human indifference to looking at smaller things. What was once a “green patch” that I’d use as a cushion became a site of discovery where I could examine a hidden world of plants for literal hours.  

And with bryophytes, the closer you look, the more beautiful they get. Microscopically, the cellular structure and arrangement is just as diverse as their physical growth forms. Truly, I feel so lucky to be able to research them. Studying bryophytes feels like the world’s best kept secret—it feels like knowing about the forest within forests.