Sphagnum moss is a genus of moss that can be found in a large variety of areas, from the arctic to the tropics; however, it is most common in the countries across the Northern Hemisphere, New Zealand, and South America. Although there are hundreds of species across the globe, the habitat where they are found is almost always wet and bog-like. In general, it grows best in soil that is acidic, and it will not grow in areas where the soil or water contains traces of the mineral lime. The leaves are small and grow in short tufts near the stem. It can range in color from green, to yellow, and even pink, brown, or red.
Thick clumps of sphagnum moss form a mat in watery areas called bogs, where it grows in patches with short roots. The moss absorbs water, similar to a sponge; however, the water can be extracted. As a result, the dried moss can be used to start fires.
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People often have a difficult time telling the difference between sphagnum moss and sphagnum peat moss. Sphagnum moss is actually quite different than peat moss and is harvested separately. It is used primarily among florists to make items such as baskets, wreaths, and some floral arrangements. This moss is the portion of the plant that is alive and can be found on top of the bog. Alternatively, sphagnum peat moss is used to condition soil, especially for orchids. It is the dead part and is found in the lower portions of the bog.
Knowing the difference between regular sphagnum and sphagnum peat moss is important, since only the moss can transmit cutaneous sporotrichosis, a fungal disease. The condition causes ulcer-like lesions on the skin of its handlers. Since the moss grows in wet conditions, the fungus that causes the condition can grow and spread rapidly among its handlers. Luckily, there is a treatment for the disease, and people are encouraged to wear gloves and shirts with long sleeves when touching the moss.
In Tasmania, Australia, conservation guidelines have been set out that determine whether sphagnum should be harvested. For example, it has been determined that areas where the low average temperature in January is 50°F (10°C) or less; areas that are on basalt, limestone, floating moss beds; or those with a varying water table should not be harvested. In addition, in Tasmania, harvesters learned that the impact to the area can be lessened by keeping shrubs, allowing 30% of the sphagnum moss to remain on bare areas, and allowing five to ten years for regeneration to occur before harvesting can take place again.