Wise use of peatlands

Photo: Micheal Succow
Moss, especially sphagnum, has been used for centuries for everything from absorbent bandage and diaper-like treatments to modern day environmental clean up of metal deposits and oil, and water filtration.

Sphagnum turns to peat as it decomposes.  Sphagnum moss, the live portion of the plant, is sold packaged in whole pieces, dried or fresh, and is most often used to line wire hanging baskets and other types of containers.

Sphagnum peat, a natural, organic soil conditioner used to regulate moisture and air around plant roots, is being over-harvested and is also being harvested in ways that render a peat bog or fen completely unsustainable. This is alarming not only because of the specter of species or bog extinction, but because peatlands are huge carbon sinks, and when they are drained and harvested at an accelerated rate, methane, a greenhouse gas, is released.
(Read more for videos and .pdfs on peatland ecology, plus a list of terms and definitions.)

Fortunately, many scientific studies are focusing on regeneration of various Sphagnum species in the hope of restoring or reclaiming lost peatlands.  There are international organizations dedicated to the restoration of bogs that have been completely drained and harvested.  Unfortunately, little of the plant regenerates at the rate it is being used. You can make a difference by asking your florist and nursery to use sustainably harvested peat or moss.

To view videos and read about efforts to restore peatland ecology, visit Peat Moss and the Environment.

Terms and definitions (from the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association):
  • Peat -  The largely organic residues of plants, incompletely decomposed through lack of oxygen.
  • Peat moss or moss peat - Partially decayed mosses including:
  • Sphagnum peat - Peat that is composed mainly of partially decomposed Sphagnum moss species. Commonly called peat moss or sphagnum peat moss. This is the most important type of peat for horticultural use.
  • Hypnum peat- Peat that is composed mainly of stems and leaves from various Hypnum moss species.
  • Peat humus - Peat that is fully decomposed so that none of the original plants can be identified.
  • Sphagnum moss - A group of mosses that grow in bogs. In horticulture, sphagnum moss refers to the live portion of the plant that is available packaged in whole pieces, dried or fresh. It is often confused with sphagnum peat moss. Sphagnum moss is most often used to line wire hanging baskets and other types of containers. It is not used as a soil amendment.
  • Wetland - A broad term that is used to describe areas which are waterlogged all or most of the time.
  • Peatland - A specific type of wetland on which extensive organic material has accumulated. These areas with peat-forming vegetation growing on peat have an undrained layer of peat at least 12-18 inches deep. Peatlands are found in all parts of the world except deserts and arctic regions.
  • Bog - Peatland with the water table at or near the surface. The types of plants growing in a bog tend to be limited in diversity because of the acid, nutrient-poor environment. Plants found growing in a bog obtain nutrients primarily from rainfall.
  • Fen - Peatland with the water table usually at or just above the surface. Plants obtain nutrients from soil and groundwater.
  • Reclamation - Ways of using peatlands after they have been harvested. Reclaimed peatlands are commonly changed into natural areas and wildlife habitats that are ecologically different from the original site, converted into forestry plantations, or developed as agricultural cropland. 
  • Restoration - Reestablishment of a harvested site as a peatland with characteristics nearly identical to pre-harvesting conditions

Moss names and taxonomy

Electrified Cat-tail Moss
For some moss enthusiasts, a term like Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus may as well read Τι στον κόσμο είναι αυτή η λέξη. It is the nine-syllable name of a moss, more easily skimmed over than translated, and far too technical and not especially useful for the lay person. However, a name like "Electrified Cat-tail moss" or "Big Shaggy Moss" would intrigue and inform — and perhaps entertain — the enthusiast, who would then know something about the size and possible shape of the moss.

Calliergon cordifolium - heart-leaved spear moss
Courtesy Koen Vandekerckhove

The bryologist, on the other hand, finds the Greek and Latin terms in moss names perfectly descriptive of things such as the growth habit, leaf formation around the stem, leaf color, or shape of the sporophyte or its parts. Calliergon cordifolium, for example, describes the heart-leaved spear moss. Climacium dendroides describes a tree-like moss.
Calliergon cordifolium
 Courtesy Michael Lüth
Moss naming conventions
In the world of bryology, only a handful of the 15,000* mosses have a common name, a few of which can be found at World of Mosses and Mosses, Lichens, and Liverworts of the Northwoods - Species Index.

Mosses are referred to by their Latin names at the genus and species level (a binomial). The bryologist or scientist who first describes the genus or species gets to names it.  There are instances, as with Bryoandersonia illecebra, in which the person naming the moss honored someone, in this case bryologist Lewis Anderson, but had to "Latinize" his name to fit conventions.

Any abbreviation after the genus or species name, as in Mnium thomsonii Schimp., indicates the person who first described the moss, in this case Wilhelm Phillipe Schimper, a French bryologist and paleobotanist (1808-1880). If a name appears in parenthesis, it is because his or her choice of family or genus or even species convention has since been modified by other scientists.

Taxonomy is the science dealing with the description, identification, naming, and classification of organisms. There are a few biological classification systems, including:
  • Linnean* — classified in a ranked hierarchy (list) based on structural similarities, developed before scientists understood that organisms evolved
  • Evolutionary (or Darwinian) — grouped by how organisms are related through evolution and overall similarity
  • Cladistic — grouped by an ancestor organism and all its descendents, as in a family tree of life
Linnean Classification
The USDA and the Natural Resources Conservation Service host a handy plant database where mosses are listed (classified) at every rank of the Linnean system.  An example is Bryum caespiticium, or sidewalk moss.
  • Kingdom  Plantae – Plants
  • Phylum (or Division)  Bryophyta – Mosses
  • Subdivision  Musci
  • Class  Bryopsida – True mosses
  • Subclass  Bryidae
  • Order  Bryales
  • Family  Bryaceae
  • Genus  Bryum Hedw. – bryum moss
  • Species  Bryum caespiticium Hedw. – dry calcareous bryum moss
Mnemonic devices abound to help the novice remember the hierarchy of  
Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species:
Kind Professors Can't Often Fail Good Students
King Phillip Came Over For George's Sake
Kings Play Chess on Fuzzy Green Squares
Keen Paleontologists Can Only Find Great Specimens 
Kiss Pigs Carefully Or Face Grimy Smiles
Kids Picking Cacti On Fridays Get Stuck
Keep Peeling Cold Onions For Good Smells 

Evolutionary and Cladistic Classification
Source: Wikipedia
A more modern classification systems look like a tree of life (as opposed to a ranked list), as depicted in this image by Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919).  This is the Tree of Life from Generelle Morphologie der Organismen (1866) with three kingdoms: Plantae, Protista and Animalia.

A cladogram is a diagram which shows ancestral relations between organisms (see below).  Mosses are found in the plants clade.

Source: Wikipedia

Carl von Linné, by Alexander Roslin, 1775.
*Who was Carl Linneaus?

According to Wikipedia, Carl von Linné, later given the more Latin surname "Linnaeus," was a Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist, who laid the foundations for the modern scheme of binomial nomenclature. He is known as the father of modern taxonomy, and is also considered one of the fathers of modern ecology.

 *Counts vary, depending on the source, from 9,000 to 22,000.


 Read about the shrinking number of fungus and lichen taxonomists in the UK:
"The Fungus Among Us Multiplies As Mycological Taxonomists Wither" Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2011