Two of the most important growing media for carnivorous plants are Sphagnum and Sphagnum peat moss. They have many of the ideal properties we often look for, a low pH, nutrient deficient, they hold a lot of water and in the case of Sphagnum it’s great at oxygen exchange too. We hear and read things like that all the time. They’re true. But they’re not the complete story. There’s a bigger picture which is seldom spoken about, and it has some serious repercussions. So here’s the less PR friendly complete story.
Sphagnum isn’t a factory manufactured material which can be produced in infinite quantity on demand. We can’t make it at home or in our gardens. And it’s certainly not a commodity we can count on being around for centuries as we have with oil, gas or coal. Sphagnum is the name of a genus containing over 250 species of moss. It largely occurs in the cooler regions of the Northern Hemisphere. New Zealand in the south also has Sphagnum bogs too.
When we buy a Sphagnum product many of us give very little thought about how it got to us. So let’s spend some time analysing the ugly truth. Sphagnum gets to us because people make their living mining it as a green and growing plant, digging it out of the ground, drying it out and baling it up. While other people make a living by shipping it via air, sea and rail all around the world. Peat bogs hold about ‘ of the world’s carbon stored in terrestrial plants and soil. Sphagnum products and their transport are responsible for releasing substantial amounts of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere every year.
Sphagnum is harvested from some of the most pristine and clean environments on earth – ombrotrophic bogs. It’s harvested at an alarming rate. A rate too fast to sustain. It’s been calculated for Sphagnum to regenerate from harvesting in any given area, takes between five and thirty five years. Think about that for a moment. We can’t go back to the same physical spot for more Sphagnum for at least five years, but probably more like thirty five years. At least not if we expect the Sphagnum to be in the same health and quantity next time round. And this time frame is completely dependent on enough of the original Sphagnum being left undisturbed to allow regeneration.
Exacerbate regeneration time with factors which slow down recovery, changing climate, invasive weed species and pollution such as nutrient runoff. You’ll quickly realise Sphagnum is in big trouble. Then comes all of the problems associated with a commodity under pressure. Demand exceeds supply so prices increase, quality goes down and the market becomes flooded with inferior alternatives and knockoffs. Ultimately our goal of conserving and cultivating carnivorous plants will become virtually impossible.
As you can likely imagine there’s a link between Sphagnum and Sphagnum peat moss. It goes like this, Sphagnum is the living, relatively thin, green layer on top. It undergoes photosynthesis, grows, spreads and reproduces from spores. It’s alive. Sphagnum peat moss (often just called peat moss) on the other hand is the decomposed material under the Sphagnum. The old Sphagnum if you like. It’s not living. Sphagnum peat moss builds up under the Sphagnum over thousands of years. It creates deep, acidic anaerobic peat deposits that grow optimally by about 1 ‘ 1.5 mm a year.
So how do we get the peat moss out of the ground while leaving the Sphagnum to keep growing? We can’t. And we don’t even really try. We largely accept the environmental cost of extracting peat moss is the destruction of the living Sphagnum layer. With it goes ability to produce more Sphagnum and Sphagnum peat moss during the regeneration of the ecosystem. We may set an ecosystem back by a few hundred years, even before the smallest signs of recovery become evident.
A 10 meter deep peat deposit takes somewhere in the vicinity of 9,000 years to form. At current rate we reach those depths in 40 ‘ 50 years. After all it’s a useful raw material. It’s useful in our gardens as soil conditioner and as a major ingredient in almost every potting mix made today. We even used to burn it on a large scale to keep warm.
One of the most confronting statistics I have ever seen suggests 75% of people have no idea what Sphagnum peat moss is or where it comes from. When pressed many people tell me they think it comes about in a similar time frame and process as homemade compost. The number one cause driving excessive Sphagnum and Sphagnum peat mining today is inappropriate use of the media. People buy it without understanding what it is. Or how and when it should be used. Frivolous, unnecessary and often counter intuitive use is depleting resources much faster than necessary and contributing to unsustainable resource loss.
Some producers of Sphagnum products have lied to us. They say peat is a renewable resource. They say the time to regenerate a Sphagnum bog is between five to thirty-five years. Scientists, environmentalists and ecologists say the time is more like hundreds if not thousands of years. We disrupt ecosystems, destroy flora, destroy fauna and in the process well and truly morally bankrupt ourselves. If you’re inclined to take the manufacturers word, consider for a moment what would have to be wrong in order for the industry and manufacturers to be right. Bogs would need to be growing in size with our current rate of mining. Instead they are shrinking. Scientists and environmental institutions around the world would all have to have over estimated recovery times based upon shared and individually gathered data. The definition of a renewable resource is a commodity that can be replaced or replenished in the same or less amount of time as it takes to draw the supply down. This does not apply to Sphagnum or Sphagnum peat moss.
Producers also tell us they carefully target only Sphagnum. This is in spite of irrefutable evidence demonstrating Sphagnum containing material from other species which were inadvertently destroyed and harvested along with the targeted species. It only takes a quick peruse through plant enthusiasts forums to see this is a common problem.
Producers in both Canada and the United States maintain that they never cut sphagnum faster than it grows, and leave behind enough to ensure regeneration. The Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association claims that peat operations keep the bogs from being drained for development, that five to ten years after harvesting, the bog will be a functioning wetland again, and that after 25 years, 90% of the original flora will grow back. I have my doubts. Some scientists point out that a managed bog lacks the biodiversity of a natural bog. So far dead animals haven’t shown a tendency to regenerate quickly.
Many carnivorous plants growers have experimented and trialled various alternatives to Sphagnum and peat moss over the years. There’s been varying degrees of success for varying lengths of time. Unfortunately the reality is Sphagnum and Sphagnum peat moss is natural habitat for many carnivorous plants. It will likely always produce superior results to artificial or substitute growing media.
Apart from all the great growing media properties of Sphagnum and Sphagnum peat moss here’s some of negative properties to think about. Sphagnum peat moss takes a really long time to form. It substantially contributes to carbon dioxide release. We are harvesting it too quickly. Sphagnum is not immune to the effects of climate change, and pollution. Its home to a very diverse and large number of plants and animals that are often not found anywhere else. Every time we mine these resources we destroy populations of plants and animals and reduce biodiversity. These are more sombre truths, but truths none the less. Actually, I pity the poor garden centre that advertises these properties in their next spring catalogue.
So what can we all do about the Sphagnum dilemma? Begin by treating the growing media you use in cultivation of your plants as preciously as you do the plants themselves. That means no wastage, using minimal quantities. Use the right material for the right job. Seven out of twenty people don’t know what Sphagnum or Sphagnum peat moss should be used for. I once was told to use Sphagnum peat moss as a mulch on my lawn and garden beds. If you’re in a position to sell Sphagnum products retail, make sure your staff have the knowledge and training they need to help customers make appropriate product selection.
When you are searching suppliers of growing media do you due diligence and find suppliers who are open about their practices. Find the suppliers who have put in place environmental safeguards and don’t just say they do. Make some phone calls if you need to. Anyone who becomes cagey and reluctant to answer your questions more than likely knows they’re doing the wrong thing. Most importantly though, advocate for sustainability and proper management. Be the voice these ecosystems need and don’t be afraid to speak out or vote with your feet.
Consider joining or supporting organizations who work to preserve, restore and promote bog conservation. Not all of us live in parts of the world where these organizations operate. That shouldn’t stop us using our moral compass to contribute in terms of donations, a kindly worded email in support of their cause or discussing these issues with your friends and family. One such organization we admire and support is the Irish Peatland Conservation Council. I encourage you to visit their website, you’ll be rewarded with knowledge and inspiration.