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Amazing Sphagnum

A Carpet of sphagnum covers a healthy peat bog

April 16th 2023

Sphagnum mosses play a vital role in the creation and continuation of peat bogs. When we walk across a peatland landscape, few of us take the time to look at the soft sphagnum moss beneath us, a spongy carpet of beautiful greens and pinks, but we’ve all felt the feeling of being about to be swallowed up by the ground beneath us when walking across bogland.

Sphagnum mosses can soak up more than eight times their own weight in water. They hold an incredible amount of water in their spongy forms which helps to prevent the decay of dead plant material. The resulting organic material gets compressed over hundreds of years to form peat.

Recently I have been exploring how I can represent the partially decaying plant material, which forms peat beneath the bog’s surface. I decided to do some mono printing as I had a little experience with this on a recent Creative Conversations Day arranged by Arran Theatre and Arts Trust. I had done some mono printing years ago, but this prompted me to do some more.

I created the branchlike forms by using dendrite printing which lends itself to the kind of surface I am looking for. Dendrites are actually nerve cells and printing in this way creates these branchlike shapes.

I limited my colour palette to burnt umber, black and white. The base print of this one is a simple mono print with a dendrite print on top.

There are over 350 species of sphagnum moss, with over 30 species in the UK alone and it plays a vital role in the creation and continuation of peat bogs.

Scientists have discovered that this compressed matter, peat, can store vast amounts of carbon sealed underground, making it one of the world's best carbon sinks. It’s important to maintain the conditions under which Sphagnum can grow in order to sustain the peat bog and prevent the peat from drying out and releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

Sphagnum moss under a microscope reveals how the plant holds so much moisture. You can see here in my drawing how interesting the patterns are in sphagnum leaves. The narrower cells hold chlorophyll, and the wider cells are where water is stored.

For centuries Sphagnum moss has also played an important part in the lives of our ancestors, going as far back as the bronze age. The presence of microorganisms including penicillium makes it a marvellous antiseptic. It was used in both world wars to stop the bleeding of injured soldiers’ wounds.

The work being done on Arran by the National Trust for Scotland on restoring our peat bogs involves restoring the water-logged conditions sphagnum moss needs to flourish and do its wonderful job of capturing and storing carbon which mitigates against climate change.

It’s a great example of how nature often has the answers to some of our most pressing environmental problems if only we listen.

At the moment I’m observing and gathering information on my project. I have not decided exactly what the outcome will be in terms of jewellery, preferring to keep my mind open to whatever comes up during the process. I’m already seeing potential in the structures of sphagnum moss and in other plants found in peat bogs as well as in the peat itself. There are also lines, textures and subtle tones of the landscape to think about. I’m looking forward to May/June when many of the peat bog plants will be in flower. And then there's the tuition I will be having in June with a fantastic jeweller and enameller, Jessica Turrell. Lots to look forward to and learn.


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