The Wonders of Sphagnum Moss

Prehistoric Product From 10,000 Years Ago

Before the last Ice Age, the North America region contained large swamps and the climate was warm and moist. Huge dinosaurs lived in these swamps, and reptiles of many kinds swam in the sea or even flew. One hundred fifty-five million years ago, during this Mesozoic era, a well-known plant which many gardeners use every day, began to flourish: ­ Sphagnum Moss.

During the Ice Age, glaciers covered large parts of North America. As the last great glacier (10,000 years ago, named the Wisconsin Glacier) destroyed all trees and plants as it made its way south, a quite fortunate happening occurred. In what is now the Central Wisconsin marshland, the glacier split and created a huge lake leaving the prehistoric sphagnum moss plant to flourish. When the glaciers receded, the sprawling marshland that remained was filled with live sphagnum moss plants.

Sphagnum Moss Has Been Used for a Thousand Years

Horticulturists have long known the benefits of long-fibered sphagnum moss. With its unique qualities of retaining 20 times its weight in water, twice as absorptive as cotton, and its anti-bacterial sterility, sphagnum moss has become an indispensable gardening tool in the propagation and beautification process. But sphagnum moss has a rich history of inventive uses throughout the ages.

According to the Smithsonian Institute, sphagnum moss has been used for at least 1,000 years to help heal human injuries. “In ancient times, Gaelic-Irish sources wrote that warriors in the battle of Clontarf used moss to pack their wounds. Moss was also used by Native Americans, who lined their children’s cradles and carriers with it as a type of natural diaper. It continued to be used sporadically when battles erupted, including during the Napoleonic and Franco-Prussian wars.”

During World War I, doctors noted the significant prevalence of sepsis, the potentially life-threatening response triggered by a bad infection.  A British report warned that the thousands of wounded men were threatening to exhaust the material for bandages. Alternatives were not effective nor plentiful, such as cotton which was already in high demand for uniforms. A Scottish surgeon-and-botanist duo suggested stuffing the wounds with sphagnum moss.

Sphagnum Moss Properties

Many of the uses over the years has been a result of its two special properties: water absorption and antiseptic properties.

Water Absorption Property: According to Robin Kimmerer, professor of ecology at SUNY-Environmental Science and Forestry and the author of Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. “Ninety percent of the cells in a sphagnum plant are dead,” Kimmerer says. “And they’re supposed to be dead. They’re made to be empty so they can be filled with water.” Other researchers have determined that water molecules bind to the sphagnum cells, providing for water attraction like metal to a magnet.

Antiseptic Property: There have been numerous theories and experiments to determine the reasons for the antiseptic aspect of sphagnum moss. One theory is that sphagnum absorbs a form of nitrogen, starving pathogens from colonizing. According to Robin Kimmerer, the plant’s cell walls are composed of special sugar molecules that “create an electrochemical halo around all of the cells, and the cell walls end up being negatively charged.” The moss releases ions that make the environment around it acidic.”  Sphagnum bandages keep the pH level around the wound low, inhibiting the growth of bacteria.

Sphagnum Moss from Wisconsin Marshes

Long-fibered sphagnum moss is harvested from the Wisconsin marshes where, during the winter, temperatures can reach 55° below zero. The ecosystem of these marshes is tightly controlled, and the sphagnum moss assists in retaining and holding the structure of the marshes. To protect these marshes, long-fibered sphagnum moss is gently harvested by “mossers” working in hip boots, who pull the moss, breaking it at the soil line, and prepare the water-laden sphagnum moss for commercial use.

Long-fibered sphagnum moss propagates through a process known as sporing. If left alone, the plant will die and decompose on its ancestors, while still permitting the continuing propagation of the species. Hundreds of feet below the area where the harvesting takes place, the ancestors of the product they harvest have long since died and decomposed into sphagnum peat. The Company chooses not to dig out the peat as it would kill the propagation process, and these wonderful plants would be lost forever.

The Company was established in 1932 in Millston, Wisconsin. It is the largest producer and fabricator of sphagnum moss and sphagnum moss products. Its many customers include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, numerous state institutions, agricultural colleges, greenhouses, nurseries, professional and home gardeners.