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Sphagnum Moss: The Facts

Sphagnum Moss Suppliers, Sphagnum Moss Traders, Sphagnum Moss Wholesalers, Sphagnum Moss Exporters - Moutere River Company Ltd, New Zealand.

Mosses are a group of lower plants which, combined with liverworts and hornworts, form the botanical division Bryophyta. Mosses have a simple physiology showing little differentiation of cells and no root system. All green leafy plants are dependent on the process of photosynthesis to provide the energy that sustains their life. The requirements of carbon dioxide from the air, and water (usually from the soil) are met by various adaptations of the plant. Higher plants have developed thick outer protective layers ensuring the retention of water; the passage of carbon dioxide in to the plant is facilitated through the possession of stomata. Mosses have no such outer protective layer and the passage of carbon dioxide and water into the plant is directly through the cell walls of the plant. The loss of water through evaporation restricts their distribution to humid or aquatic habitats or bogs where water balance can be maintained.

Sphagnum moss bogs form in areas with high rainfall and low temperatures, or poor drainage. Under these conditions, nutrients are leached from the soil, leaving an acidic (sour) soil condition to which sphagnum moss is well suited. The soils of much of the land supporting sphagnum moss on the West Coast of New Zealand are gley podzols. Iron-humus pans are overlayed with cemented gravels; water logging and lack of oxygen cause the material higher in the profile to be a neutral grey in colour.

Constructed like a big sponge, sphagnum moss tends to retain the water and by releasing hydrogen ions, maintains the high acidity. One result is that the bacteria which normally breakdown plant matter can't thrive and the dead sphagnum moss accumulates, eventually forming peat.  The acidity of sphagnum moss inhibits most bacterial growth and was used during World War One as a wound dressing, and sphagnum moss workers today report relief from such symptoms as warts, tinea and even skin cancer! Sphagnum moss has a high cation exchange capacity (which is the reason why it is used extensively in plant propagation either as sphagnum moss or in its decomposed peat moss state) which is to say that sphagnum moss has the ability to transfer nutrients extremely well; due predominantly to unesterified polyuronic acid molecules. By exchanging nutrient cations such as calcium magnesium, potassium, and sodium for hydrogen ions, sphagnum moss lowers the pH of its surrounds.

Sphagnum mosses form a distinct sub-class within the mosses, and are characterised by having bunches of branches, some of which hang down and some of which are spreading, and also by the unique sphagnum moss leaf cells which enable the plant to absorb up to 20 times its own dry weight of water.

There are at least six species of sphagnum moss in New Zealand; S. cristatum, S. australe (antarcticum), S. falcatulum, S. subnitens, S. squarrosum, and S. subsecundum (although S. subsecundum is probably complex and may be three or four species).

Sphagnum cristatum, the species which forms the backbone of the New Zealand sphagnum moss industry occurs throughout New Zealand and Australia. Its shoots are up to 30cm long and vary in colour from white to green to brown, though some moss also has a reddish tinge. Sphagnum cristatum has two types of leaves: broad, flat stem leaves and narrower, concave branch leaves. Having no root system, sphagnum moss relies on the outer layers of the stem and the wick-like action of its downward pointing branches to help transport groundwater upwards. Some sphagnum moss species protrude a considerable height out of the water as the fast capillary action of the sphagnum moss constantly supplies the growing parts with water. The whole sphagnum moss plant may never be seen to die and potentially could grow in the same place for centuries, however, that part of the plant that is not decomposed is usually no more than ten years old. Boundaries between the parts of the sphagnum moss plant are uncertain or inconvenient so that one cannot differentiate between live and dead sphagnum moss parts with any degree of certainty.

Although the most common form of reproduction in sphagnum moss is asexual, (the plant propagating by bits breaking off and re-growing elsewhere) sphagnum moss is also capable of sexual reproduction. Spores form within dark coloured capsules at the tips of the branches. When mature, they explode out of the capsules and the sphagnum moss spores are released to the wind.

Sphagnum moss leaves are only one cell thick. They are made up of large empty, dead hyaline cells (the water containers) and narrow, living green cells containing chloroplasts. Like the leaves, sphagnum moss stems have large, empty hyaline cells with numerous pores to allow water movement up the plant. There are three or more layers in Sphagnum cristatum. The cells of the core of the stem are smaller than the hyaline cells, and have thicker walls. They give the pant support. In Sphagnum cristatum the hyaline cells of the stem have fibrils (as in the leaves) but this is not so for any other New Zealand sphagnum moss species.

Other sphagnum moss articles on our site:

Sustainable moss management practices

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