Plants dark green to brownish, dull, forming hard tufts. Stems unbranched, erect, 0.5-1 mm, strongly radiculose. Leaves 0.5-4 mm, crisped and imbricate when dry, margins entire or weakly toothed with papillae, apex blunt, the most proximal leaves shorter than the most distal, laminal cells mammillose or papillose through most of lamima. Perichaetial leaves brownish when mature, with spinulose awn, lamina at awn base lacerate and membranaceous. Capsule broadly ovoid, (2-)3-4 mm, stomata phaneropore near capsule base; mature sporangium emergent from spreading perichaetium. Spores 6-8 µm.
Capsules mature early summer. Soil banks and soil of forest floors, also in tundras; low to moderate elevations (50-1000 m); B.C., N.B., Nfld. and Labr. (Nfld.), N.S., Ont., P.E.I., Que.; Ala., Alaska, Ark., Conn., Del., Ga., Ill., Ind., Kans., Ky., La., Maine, Md., Mass., Mo., N.H., N.J., N.Y., N.C., Ohio, Okla., Pa., S.C., Vt., Va., W.Va., Wis.; Mexico; Central America (Guatemala); Europe; Asia; Atlantic Islands (Azores, Iceland, Madeira).
In western North America, Diphyscium foliosum is terrestrial in tundra sites, often in blowouts; it is also found as humid perpendicular sods pendent from ledges and on rock in canyon walls; in eastern North America it is found on banks and horizontal surfaces in forests. The unique golf-tee-like protonemal flaps, which can be excavated from the rhizoids, are a distinctive family trait.