Miraculous Moss



Recently I transplanted some small cedar trees in a cedar garden. The purpose of this planting was to help seedlings survive the winter grazing. Cedars are second successional trees that grow slowly and we have so many deer that these little seedlings often don’t make it to adulthood, so I am intervening on their behalf.


After transplanting I carefully gathered a small amount of the top layer of Sphagnum moss to put around the base of the tiny trees to help keep the moisture in while the seedlings are rooting in rich veins of mycelium. In the process I thought about how some species of Sphagnum moss can hold up to 20 times their dry weight in water – a fantastic attribute.


Mosses in general are small non – vascular plants called Bryophytes, probably the first green plants to grow on land. They commonly grow close together in clumps or mats in damp or shady locations. They do not have flowers or seeds, and their simple leaves cover thin wiry stems. They produce spore capsules that are borne aloft on thin stalks.


On this property I have many kinds of moss including Sphagnum moss and yesterday as soon as the rain began I wandered around here taking deep pleasure out of the almost instant greening after such a dry summer. All mosses are designed to take in water almost instantly, it hadn’t been raining 15 minutes before the mosses that line my paths turned a brilliant emerald green. If moss gets too dry it stops photosynthesizing and although it’s too shaded here for that to happen I have noticed the graying out color of thirsty moss. Sphagnum moss is pale green when it has adequate water but as it dries out it turns almost a wheat color.

I remember being taught as a child that Sphagnum moss could be used on any cut or wound that I got while in the woods. Sphagnum does have antiseptic properties. Sphagnum “bandages” produce sterile environments by keeping the pH level around the wound low, and inhibiting the growth of bacteria. The plant’s cell walls are composed of special sugar molecules that create an electrochemical halo around all of the cells, with the result that the cell walls end up being negatively charged. Negative charges attract positively charged nutrient ions like potassium, sodium and calcium to the sphagnum. As the moss soaks up all the negatively charged nutrients in the soil, it releases positively charged ions that make the environment around it acidic.

As long as the peat underneath the living moss is not disturbed, the peat acts like a sponge enabling the  regrowth of Sphagnum. Peat – lands full of sphagnum and other mosses spend thousands of years accumulating carbon in their underground layers. If they defrost or dry out too much carbon leaks out into the atmosphere. The practice of draining sphagnum wetlands for agricultural, residential or commercial use raises deep concern. Today some measures are being taken to protect these bogs but scientists fear that bogs and swamplands could be drained or negatively impacted by agriculture and industry, or that too much peat will be used for biofuel.

Besides their role in global climate change, peat lands are rich ecosystems in their own right, boasting rare species like carnivorous plants. Sphagnum and the peat layer beneath are really important pockets of biodiversity. During the summer I kayak in North Pond to Sphagnum bogs to see the delicate orchids, carnivorous sun-dews and other plants that only grow in such specialized areas.


Peat moss is actually the dead, decayed plant matter of Sphagnum moss that settles at the bottom of the sphagnum bogs. In its natural setting, peat can help in flood mitigation, while in the long term peat forms coal. Anaerobic, acidic Sphagnum bogs are known to preserve mammalian bodies for millennia.


There are over 350 species of sphagnum moss, but most of the varieties harvested for sphagnum moss products grow in wetlands of the northern hemisphere primarily in Canada, Michigan, Ireland and Scotland, but we have it here in Maine too.


One fascinating activity is to hike through our diverse woodlands looking for different types of mosses. If you are interested in finding sphagnum moss search out boggy areas with some diffused sunlight. But please remember that if you wild – craft the moss only take small amounts from the top layer in different areas to preserve sphagnum diversity.