Wild harvesting mosses—for commercial sale by the ton

Wild harvesting is the act of harvesting natural resources directly from their native environments.  Any hiker who has taken a handful of moss from the base of a tree or the top of a log and transplanted it at home in the garden has wild harvested.  This act of personal wild harvesting, while venial, could still impact the ecology of the woods.
Where wild harvesting poses a much bigger threat is in commercial sales, when entire swaths of forests are cleared of mosses for resale to the floral and horticulture industry.  And there are buyers and customers at the ready, most of whom do not realize that the mosses will fade quickly because they are dead (not dormant) and dyed. If mosses are wild harvested specifically for use in landscaping and gardening, they are typically dormant and not dead, but nonetheless they have been wild harvested by unsupervised and unregulated gatherers.

Last year, Moss Acres sold an acre of mosses that were wild harvested in northeastern Pennsylvania. Even though Moss Acres requires its gatherers to obtain permission from the private land owners on whose lands they harvest, and the gatherers receive instructions on how to harvest sustainably - so as not to eradicate an entire species or invite a new species that might outcompete one already in place, the act of gathering mosses in quantity for resale constitutes wild harvesting.
According to the International Association of Bryologists, land development and mining* pose a greater threat to bryophyte communities in nature than does wild harvesting. However, the IAB has proposed guidelines for the sustainable harvest of forest mosses because it is "concerned that the harvest of large amounts of forest moss has the potential to adversely impact ecosystem functions (notably hydrological and nutrient cycles) and animal habitats (especially invertebrates). This concern is enhanced by the slow documented rates of moss growth and regrowth in many areas."  

*In some heavily forested areas, mosses are often rescued and transplanted before loggers come in and denude the land. Much of this rescued moss will survive if taken dormant properly.

Dr. Robin Kimmerer devotes an entire chapter to wild harvesting in her book, Gathering Moss. In the chapter, The Bystander, she writes about wild harvesting in the rainy forests of the Pacific Northwest. "Since 1990, this luxuriant moss growth has come under attack from commercial moss harvesters, who strip branches completely bare and sell the moss to the horticulture industry.  Legal moss harvest in the Coastal Range of Oregon has been estimated to exceed 230,000 kilograms per year [506,000 lbs, or ~250 tons]. The Forest Service regulates moss harvest on National Forests by a system of permits, but enforcement is minimal.  Illegal harvest is thought to be as much as thirty times higher than the legal quota."

She goes on to explain some of the ecological effects, "Moss harvesters are in a sense removing "old-growth" mosses, which cannot replace themselves nearly as quickly as they are removed.  This is, by definition, unsustainable harvest.  Their loss will have consequences we cannot foresee.  When the mosses are taken, their web of interactions goes along with them.  Birds, rivers, and salamanders will miss them."

Dr. Kimmerer lists the commercial names for these products:
  • Oregon Green Forest Moss - a premium product that trades on the Oregon name to evoke images of lush forests
  • Designer Moss Sheets - these are glued to a fabric backing and sprayed with flame retardant then dyed

Typically the species Hypnum imponens is the most common species of wild harvested Sheet Moss, primarily because it is plentiful in almost any wooded area throughout the United States. Live sheet moss sells for as much as $5.00 a square foot.  Dried (dead) sheet moss sells for as little as $1 a square foot, or as much as $7/lb.  Other mosses, meant to be used in landscaping, sell for up to $18 a square foot.  There is a huge margin on these products because they are harvested by low-wage workers, often illegal aliens, and without proper permits.  Packaging and shipping costs are minimal because the mosses are dried and lightweight.

Are you the buyer at the ready? Consider inviting mosses into your garden without transplanting a patch that has been wild harvested.  By keeping the soil or substrate in your garden moist, moss spores are more likely to germinate there (especially at this time of year when rains are more plentiful in most regions).  Taking small clumps of moss from your own yard (or roof!) and placing them on a similar substrate with similar light and acidity should help the mosses spread naturally.  Keeping them moist until they reestablish rhizoids is imperative.

Don't be a bystander. As an informed gardener and consumer, question your local and online garden and gift centers about the mosses they sell.  Are they cultivated or wild harvested?  Heavy odds are they are wild harvested, and not sustainably.  And, they most likely were transported great distances from the Pacific Northwest (#1 area for wild harvesting moss) or Appalachia (#2 area for wild harvesting moss).

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