Name: Sphagnum Moss (Sphagnum cymbifolium)
Otherwise known as: Bog Moss
Habitat: A true moss of the family Sphagnaceae growing up to 25cm in bogs and moorland in the northern and southern hemispheres. The plant has a soft, pale green flower head similar to edelweiss with small tubular leaves along a single stem that produces a branch at every fourth leaf which die off as the plant grows towards the light.
What does it do: The whole of the plant’s stem is composed of fine capillaries that absorb enormous amounts of water compared to its weight; this sponge-like ability to retain water is unique because when the plant is squeezed, it does not disintegrate as other retentive plants do, but recovers and reabsorbs. Sphagnum grows in clumps and forms large cushions of growth that can extend for miles. The plant is not solely dependent on soil water but will take in water from the atmosphere.
The plant contains phenols, sphagnol, potassium, calcium, manganese, tannins and humic and humin acids. It is therefore antiseptic, anti-microbial, antibacterial, antibiotic, astringent and tonic. The earliest reference to the medicinal properties of Sphagnum is in an eleventh century Gaelic chronicle where it is recorded that the wounded at the battle of Clontarf ‘stuffed their wounds with the bog moss’, as did the Highlanders at the battle of Flodden. Early naturalists claim that injured mammals, particularly deer, would bathe their wounds in peat bogs.
The Lapps have used Sphagnum for centuries as a treatment for injuries and wound staunching and lined the cradles of their infants with this moss to provide soft absorbent bedding; they also applied it to mosquito bites to relieve irritation.
The best-known use of Sphagnum was during the early part of the 20th century when in combination with garlic it was the field dressing of choice as it would not only staunch bleeding wounds but act as an antiseptic. This saved the cotton wool which was previously employed in dressings to be used in munitions manufacture. At one time both the German and British forces were using a million kilos of Sphagnum a month on the battlefield.
Peat Tar, sold under the name of Sphagnol, was used by herbalists to treat eczema, psoriasis, pruritis, piles, chilblains, scabies and acne. Johnson and Johnson have included the plant in a range of diapers and sanitary towels.
The Native Americans of Canada use Sphagnum to speed up birth and as a contraceptive. In Tibet it is infused and administered to people suffering from angina and as a treatment for Herpes Simplex.
Recent experiments indicate Sphagnum will absorb heavy metals and trace elements.
Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants