Charles Edward Moss, the youngest son of Benjamin Moss, a nonconformist minister, grew up in Halifax, Yorkshire. After completing his schooling he became a pupil teacher, but in 1895 entered Yorkshire College, then still part of Victoria University, Leeds, and obtained the degree Bachelor of Science (BSc) in 1898. He participated in the study of the vegetation of the West Riding of Yorkshire and subsequently studied the vegetation of the Bath and Bridgwater districts of Somerset. In 1901 he was appointed assistant master at Sexey's School in Bruton, Somerset, but the next year accepted the position of lecturer in biology at the Municipal Training College in Manchester. The University of Manchester awarded him the degree Master of Science (MSc) for his ecological studies in Somerset. While working in Manchester he conducted a vegetation survey of north Derbyshire and in 1907 obtained the degree Doctor of Science (DSc) from the University of Cambridge for this work with a thesis titled Vegetation of the Peak District. His thesis was published in book form in 1913. This work made him a pioneer in the study of plant ecology in Britain and he played a significant role in the formation of the British Ecological Society. In 1908 he was appointed curator of the herbarium at the University of Cambridge and began focussing on taxonomy. During this period he largely wrote and edited the first two volumes of The Cambridge British Flora (1914, 1920), a work that was never completed. He also published some dozens of papers on the flora of different parts of Britain. He was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London in 1912 and for some time served on its council.
Early in 1917 Moss was appointed as the first professor of botany at the South African School of Mines and Technology (from 1922 the University of the Witwatersrand) in Johannesburg. He immediately started studying the flora of the Transvaal and initially collected plants with Archdeacon F.A. Rogers*. He also preserved the plant collection of Mr G.T. Weeks*, the Johannesburg Town Botanist, and visited Britain several times in connection with his work. In two publications he described some natural hybrids of Clematis, Anemone and Gerbera from the Transvaal (Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, 1930) and a new genus of the family Caryophyllaceae (Journal of Botany, 1930). The plants he collected formed the basis of the university's herbarium, which was later named the Moss Herbarium in his honour. The genus Mossia was named after him by N.E. Brown*, while he is also commemorated in the species Orthosiphon mossianus, Myrica mossii, and Thesium mossi. Some of the specimens he collected went to the Bolus Herbarium at the University of Cape Town, and the herbaria of the Albany Museum, Grahamstown, and the Natural History Museum, London.
Moss was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1917 and served on its council during 1919-1920. He became a member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1917, served on its council for some years and as its honorary treasurer for 1919/20. In 1929, when the association met jointly with the British Association in South Africa, he served as joint vice-president of Section K (which included Botany) and presented papers on the vegetation of South Africa with special reference to the Witwatersrand, and the genus Anthericum in South Africa. He was elected a member of the first council of the South African Geographical Society in 1917 and served as joint vice-president of the society for 1918 and as president for 1919.
Moss' first marriage, to Alice Moss, ended in divorce in 1916, leaving him with a daughter. In 1922 he married Margaret Heatley, a lecturer in his department, with whom he had a son. He was an outstanding scholar, but was regarded as a difficult person by his colleagues.