Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Five Uses of Sphagnum Moss at the Alaska Orchid Society

I talked to a colleague I've know a long time yesterday and it turned out she was giving a talk at the Alaska Orchid Society  on sphagnum moss.  So we went last night.  Members had brought their blooming orchids to share. 

Like this spectacular lady's slipper.  From All Sands:

The Lady's Slipper is one of the few flowers which has been named for the shape of its blossom. Cypripedium, the scientific name for this flower, actually means venus slipper in Greek. The common name changes it to Lady's Slipper and with an great deal of imagination one can see how this is applicable. This plant is a species of the orchid family. It requires an acidic soil which is why most are seen in the humus rich areas of oak or pine forest.
Much like the family it comes from, which has an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 members, Lady's Slipper can survive in places from the tropics to the arctic tundra, but the greatest number of these flowers that are not grown in greenhouses exist in the warmer climates.

I don't know what the other two are called, so you don't have to read a bunch about them.  

But then we got down to the serious business of sphagnum moss - a medium often used to grow orchids. 

It was clear pretty quickly that Marilyn's background as a biology professor was going to assure that this was no superficial lecture.  She's been to international conferences on sphagnum moss and tramped all around Alaska identifying them.  

OK, #1 I got.  But after that, shall we say my brain was stretched a bit. 

She did explain these terms and I understand them now a bit, but not enough to try to explain them here. 

Here's a close up of a dried sphagnum moss she had in her collection. 

And another:

So, the question in the title.  I know that's why you're still here.  From Marilyn's talk:

  1. Fuel - in the form of peat (not all peat is sphagnum moss we learned.)
  2. The smoke from sphagnum moss gave Scot's whiskey its flavor
  3. Gives (NH₄)₃SO₄ for fertilizer
  4. Used as soil conditioner, acidifier
  5. First disposable diaper
She gave us more but you get the point.  It's evenings like this that humble me as I realize again how much I don't know. 

Like, how many kinds of sphagnum moss are there?   150 - 300
And how many grow in Alaska?  38-40

And people like Marilyn can identify many of them.  I'm not even sure I could identify a sphagnum moss from another kind of moss, though she told us how.  But I'd have to go out and look and see if what I understood was as obvious with living moss as she made it out to be. 


  1. Very cool! I wish I'd gone last night......

  2. The ones you don't name look like a Citrina hybrid and an Odontoglossum of some kind. But it's hard to tell without seeing more of the plant. And sometimes you can't tell without tests by genetic experts. Orchids are at least as evolved along plant lines as we are along mammalian likes, and are far more specialized. But you just taught this rank amateur orchid nerd that she needs to study up on materials I routinely use.

  3. Thanks for your comments. Yeah, Anon, we missed you. :) And cjumper, you too, though I'm guessing you would have had a longer trip.


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