Moss, Sphagnum

Medical Herbs Catalogue


Moss, Sphagnum

Botanical Name: Sphagnum cymbifolium
Family: N.O. Lichenes
Synonym: Bog Moss.

Sphagnum Moss, commonly known as Bog Moss, is the only true Moss that has yet proved itself to be of appreciable economic value.

It is found in wet and boggy spots, preferably on peat soil, mostly near heather, on all our mountains and moors, in patches small or large, usually in water free from lime, growing so close together that it often forms large cushions or clumps. It is seldom found in woods; it grows best on heath moors, in water holes.

Description: Sphagnum is easily distinguished from other mosses by its habit ofgrowth, its soft thick fullness (each head resembling a full and elaborate bloom of edelweiss), and its vividly pale-green colour.

Its stem is densely beset with narrow, broken-up leaves, a branch being emitted at every fourth leaf; many of these are turned downwards and applied more or less closely to the stem.

Though the pale-green species is the most common, there are several others, large and small, varying in colour from the very light green (never dark green) to yellow, and all shades of pink to deep red and brown. The Moss often attracts attention by its display of beautiful shades of colour, such patches being avoided by wary persons, who do not wish to get their feet wet.

Every part of the moss is permeated with minute tubes and spaces, resulting in a system of delicate capillary tubes, having the effect of a very fine sponge. The cells readily absorb water and retain it. The water can be squeezed out, but the Moss does not collapse and is ready to take in fluid again.

The plant is not dependent on soil water, but also absorbs moisture from the atmosphere, and is laden throughout with water retained in its delicate cells.

The presence of these capillary cells makes Sphagnum economically useful. In horticulture, long before the war, this Moss had a marketable value, in combination with peat fibre, being widely used as a rooting medium for orchids, on account of the remarkable manner in which it retains moisture, a handful when wet being like a sponge, and when chopped and mixed with soil in pots preventing moisture passing too quickly through the soil.

In recent years, the light-brown layer of semi-decayed Sphagnum Moss deposits that lies above the actual peat on bogs and moors, has been largely employed as valuable stable litter in the place of straw, under the name of Moss Litter, entirely on account of its great absorptive powers.

On the outbreak of the late war a still wider economic use was found for this moss, as a dressing of wounds, and an interesting industry sprang up for war-workers living where this moss grows, mainly in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Devon, much having also been collected from the Yorkshire moors, the Lake District and the Wye Valley.

Although this particular use of the moss is generally looked upon as an innovation, we owe the introduction of Sphagnum Moss as a modern surgical dressing to Germany, where its value for this purpose was quite accidentally discovered in the early eighties. And though it is only in quite recent years that Sphagnum Moss has come to the fore in the dressing of wounds, bygone generations recognized its value for this purpose. A Gaelic Chronicle of 1014 relates that the wounded in the battle of Clontarf 'stuffed their wounds with moss,' and the Highlanders after Flodden stanched their bleeding wounds by filling them with bog moss and soft grass. Stricken deer are known to drag their wounded limbs to beds of Sphagnum Moss. The Kashmiri have used it from time immemorial and so have the Esquimaux. An old writer says: 'the Lapland matrons are well acquainted with this moss. They dry it and lay it in their children's cradles to supply the place of mattress, bolster and every covering, and being changed night and morning, it keeps the infant remarkable clean, dry and warm.' The Lapps also use the moss for surgical purposes, and it has been used in Newfoundland as a dressing for wounds and sores from the earliest times.

For thirty years, Sphagnum Moss had been used as a surgical dressing in Germany.

The growing plant, with its underlying layers of withered stems and leaves, is collected, picked clean from other plants, pineneedles, etc., and dried. It is then lightly packed in bags of butter-muslin, which are sterilized before being placed on the wound.

Sphagnum Moss has important advantages (as an absorbent) over cotton-wool. Many materials, including other kinds of moss, are equally soft and light, but none can compare with it in power of absorption, due to its sponge-like structure. Prepared Sphagnum can absorb more than twice as much moisture as cotton, a 2-OZ. dressing absorbing up to 2 lb. Even the best prepared cottonwool lacks the power to retain discharges possessed by Sphagnum. A pad of Sphagnum Moss absorbs the discharge in lateral directions, as well as immediately above the wound, and holds it until fully saturated in all parts of the dressing before allowing any to escape. The even absorption of the moss is one of its chief virtues, for the patient is saved a good deal of disturbance, since the dressing does not require to be changed so frequently.

In civil hospitals, in times of peace, the deficiencies of cotton-wool are not so much noticed, the majority of wounds being those made by surgeons under ideal conditions, but for a variety of reasons the wounds of our men at the front were of such a suppurating character as to require specially absorbent dressings, and overworked doctors and nurses constantly expressed themselves thankful for a dressing that lasted longer than cotton-wool. Time and suffering are saved, as well as expense: the absorbent pads of moss are soft, elastic and very comfortable, easily packed and convenient to handle.

Fortunately the supply is practically an unlimited one; indeed, if the demand grew considerably, the artificial cultivation of Sphagnum for surgical purposes would be worth while. This Moss is easily propagated, as the stems and so-called leaves can be chopped up into fine particles and every morsel will grow and form a tassel-like head. Sphagnum only thrives in clean water and soil; it dislikes manure of any kind.

In gathering Sphagnum most people use their hands, though some employ a rake. The moss should be gathered as cleanly as possible, squeezed dry and carried home in sacks. The squeezing may be done with the hands, or with a towel or coarse sacking, further wringing being done at home, if necessary, with a laundry roller-wringer or mangle. Wringing or squeezing the moss does not harm it for surgical purposes, though it must not be allowed to dry in closely pressed pieces, because it tears when being opened up again. If squeezed with the hand, it must not be pressed into a hard ball.

While still damp, all clumps should be separated out, as the moss, whether picked or not, must be sent to the workrooms in a loose state.

Cleaning or picking the moss is best done while still damp, though it may also be done when dry. The moss is spread out on a table and all other substances, such as grasses, twigs, bits of heather and other plants, and above all, pine-needles, must be carefully removed by hand. The moss itself must not be torn or broken into short pieces.

Drying is best done in the open air; artificial heat is apt to overheat the moss and diminish its elasticity, making it brittle and easily rubbed into dust.

An empty hayshed may also be employed, open on all sides, or the floors of an empty room, with windows open, wire netting being used to keep the moss from blowing away.

Where a moor produces large patches of coherent Sphagnum - cushions - the following method has been employed. Large cushions of the moss are taken out and placed on a drier area near by - a couple of workers can put out about a hundred of these in an hour. On the next visit, these are turned and another set put out. In favourable weather a few days' sun and wind will dry these thoroughly, as the cushions are too bulky to be scattered by the wind. Several big sacks can be filled on a final visit, and the carriage of perfectly dry moss is an easy matter.

Preparation of the Dressings: The moss after being dried and carefully picked over is now ready for the dressings. All used in home hospitals is put up loosely in small, flat muslin bags, of a fairly close but very thin muslin, the bags only being loosely filled (as a rule 2 OZ. of the moss to each bag, 10 inches by 14 inches), as allowance has to be made for the way in which the moss swells on being brought into contact with moisture.

Sphagnum Moss pads are supplied both plain and sterilized (sublimated), some hospitals preferring to sterilize them themselves, but a considerable proportion being sterilized at the depots and sent out ready for use. The filled bags are passed through a solution of corrosive sublimate by a worker in rubber gloves, squeezed through a little mangle and dried again, that they may return to the specified weight, for after the bath they are 2 OZ. too heavy. The object of sublimating the moss is not for any antiseptic effect on a wound (as of course it does not come into direct contact with the skin) but to neutralize the discharge which may come through the inner dressings.

For use in field-hospitals, etc., the moss is packed in compressed cakes cut to a certain size, which are more conveniently packed for sending abroad than the soft dressings, these small slabs being also placed, each in a muslin bag, very much too large for the size of the dry cake put in them, for obvious reasons. There was a munition factory in Scotland, where much of the moss was sublimated and part of it compressed by hydraulic power into these cakes. The very hydraulic press which one hour was moulding shell bases, was in the next devoting its energy to compressing the healing cakes of Sphagnum Moss.

Sphagnum Moss was also used during the War in conjunction with Garlic, one of the best antiseptics. The Government bought up tons of the bulbs, which were sent out to the front; the raw juice expressed, diluted with water, was put on swabs of sterilized Sphagnum Moss and applied to wounds. Where this treatment was adopted there were no specific complications, and thousands of lives were thus saved.

Peat Tar: In connexion with the uses of Spaghnum Moss as a dressing for wounds, mention should be made of the Tar extracted from the Peat on which the Moss isusually found growing.

The Peat Tar contains similar antiseptic and preservative properties as the Moss itself - conclusively demonstrated by the fact that bodies of animals have lain buried in peat bogs for years, and when accidentally disinterred have been found in a state of perfect preservation.

Medicinal Action and Uses: Preparations of calcined peat have long been regarded as effective and cheap germicides, and as a valuable aid to sanitation; peat water possesses astringent and antiseptic properties, and the air in proximity to tracts of peat moss is invariably salubrious, owing probably to the absorption of hydrogen and the exhalation of oxygen by the mosses. Sphagnol, a distillate of Peat Tar, is authoritatively recognized as an extremely usefulapplication in eczema, psoriasis, pruritus, haemorrhoids, chilblains, scabies, acne and other forms of skin diseases, while it is very beneficial for allaying irritation arising from insect bites. For the latter purpose it is a preventative no less than a cure.

The manufacture of spinning material out of peat-fibre has been attempted in Sweden, and experiments have advanced so far that cloth as well as clothing has been made out of peat fibre mixed with other textile materials. This does not, however, appear likely to lead to any important industry, but absorptive material has been produced from white Sphagnum Moss and Wood Pulp. It has also lately been reported from Sweden that successful attempts have been made to extract alcohol from Sphagnum.