Moss for Beauty and Profit

Kathy Kish
18 Min Read

After reading a story on this very website about collecting items in nature for food and crafts, I decided to take a walk in the woods behind my house (on my own land) and seek things I might be able to collect.  I was trying to keep my eye out for the Pheasant Back mushroom, because I had already found a few the previous month.  They are shelf mushrooms that grow on trees and are quite beautiful, but also apparently edible.  As I was glancing around the bottom parts of the trees, I began noticing that each tree had a tiny little magical forest of bright green moss growing at its base.  Being one who is drawn to anything furry looking, I couldn’t help but scoop up some of the pieces with an idea of transplanting them into my yard.  That prompted me to do some research on growing and selling moss and its uses, and this is what I found.

For years people have been gathering and selling moss to recycling companies, that then sell it to people who package and sell it to florists, hobby stores, and the like.  The National Forest Services across the country were issuing permits to those who wanted to make some money picking and selling it to recycling centers, or directly to companies that dry, package, and sell it.  (That’s one of the wonderful things about moss. It goes dormant when dried, but if you begin to water it regularly again, you can bring it back to life.)

In the early 70s, harvesters were picking throughout the national parks and selling it for between 50 cents and $2 per pound depending upon the area.  It was by no means a get-rich-quick scheme, but helpful for some who needed the pocket money.

Unfortunately, around 2003 scientists became concerned that the moss being picked in national forests might not grow back quite as quickly as they had assumed, and that depletion of it could have a negative effect on other species that depend upon moss to survive.  After all, not only is moss soft, fluffy, and delightfully green (sort of like a St. Patrick’s Day cat), but it is also a home to tiny insects and other creatures, while collecting rainwater like a sponge and serving as a way of maintaining humidity in the forest.

sell moss
Blodel Reserve, Washington – Photo by Robert Fraik

Moss is one of the earliest forms of plant life, but amazingly, there hadn’t been much research on its growth habits prior to the early 70s.  Then, North Carolina’s Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests decided to ban moss collection at that time, because studies there indicated it could take 15 to 20 years for the already harvested moss to grow back.  In the East, the Monongahela National Forest decided to stop issuing permits for the collection of moss around that time as well.

Pat Muir, a botanist at Oregon State University, was one of the prominent researchers at the time.  She estimated that mossing was an $8.4–33.7 million business in 2003, with anywhere from 4.2 to 17 million pounds being harvested in the two dominant regions: Appalachia and the Pacific Northwest.  She felt the amount being harvested was a concern for the health of the moss and forms of life that depend on it.

Now, laws vary throughout the United States, and those interested in picking moss—or anything else, for that matter—in state or government forestland need to check out the website for that particular area.  For instance, The U.S. Department of The Interior Bureau of Land Management operates such a website for the state of Oregon.  It states that people are required to pay for a contract in order to collect moss and other plant life in large amounts in the state forests, but it allows people to gather as much as 25 pounds per year for personal use.  Others, like the Monongahela National Forest website, simply state “Moss permits are currently not being sold.”

Growing Moss

If you aren’t able to find a place where you can legally collect moss for propagating, it is now readily available at several Internet sites as already-grown moss shipped in sheets or as a product known as a Moss Milkshake that can be mixed with liquid and painted on the surfaces where you would like to grow moss.

However, there are 12,000 species of moss and it is often best for beginners to start with moss that is already doing well somewhere in, or near, their yard.  Then, they can be assured that it is already a type that thrives in their yard’s particular microclimate.

Photo by Les Chatfield

And just as you can buy Moss Milkshakes, you can make them yourself if you can find some moss on your own property or find someone else willing to allow you to pick moss on theirs.

There are several recipes for this.  One includes one part moss, one part sugar, and three parts beer, pureed in a blender.  This breaks up the moss so it can multiply, and the sugar and beer provide nutrients and act as an adhesive to hold it to rocks and such.  Others suggest substituting the sugar and beer with buttermilk, yogurt, or even urine.  These are all acidic and mosses prefer acid soils.

Once you create this concoction, you can paint it on rock surfaces, clay pots, or just pour it around in your yard.  Other methods for the yard include ripping pieces of moss apart in order to promote regeneration and then pinning those parts to the ground and watering.

Unfortunately, as noted by scientists concerned about national forest supplies, moss growth isn’t the fastest process in the world.  David Spain, co-owner of Moss and Stone Gardens, states on his blog that Acrocarpous mosses that have been fragmented may need six months or more to anchor themselves, and another twelve months to multiply.  Under ideal conditions, it is possible for the pleurocarps to double their size in 6 months.  (The difference between acrocarps and pleurocarps will be explained further down.)

If you want faster results, and money is no object, you can purchase five-square-foot pieces of moss online for $75.00 each and lay it like tile.

Qualities and Structure of Moss

Moss doesn’t have roots for absorbing water, but it does have rhizoids that anchor it to whatever substrate it grows on.  It soaks up water like a sponge through the small, simple-shaped, ribbed leaves on each tiny stem.  It needs some sun, but can’t deal with more than an hour or two per day, and it grows on rocks and ground.  Moss is able to absorb pollutants such as nitrates and ammonia, as well as humidity and nutrients directly from the air.  In fact, scientists are discovering that they can examine moss to determine how much pollution is in the air.

Acrocarpous – photo by Robert Benner

If you’ve ever carefully looked at moss you have no doubt wondered about those little red filaments that stick up far above the green carpeting.  These are sporophytes, which break open to emit spores for reproduction.  Reportedly, the spores are released from the capsule at the end of the sporophyte and develop into eggs that are then fertilized by sperm emitted from other parts of the plant.  The sperm swims to the egg through water from rain.  I’m hoping that bonafide botanists will forgive me here for abbreviating the process and keeping the terms simple.

And what does this have to do with your method of propagating them?  Not much, since the common procedure is to toss whole chunks of moss into a blender and grind it up, rather than trying to extract the spores from each tiny pod and fertilize it one’s self. However, it is important to realize that the spores and the sperm are brought together mainly by the flow of water.  Thus watering is the key to getting your moss to multiply and grow further.

While there are many varieties of moss, and moss collectors in other parts of the country collect sphagnum moss that hangs from the trees, we don’t have that in West Virginia, so I’m concentrating on moss that grows on the ground.  I don’t care much for long Latin words myself, but I did find that all mosses are one of two types: Acrocarpous and Pleurocarpous.


David Spain, explains the difference in his blog.  Acrocarpous is the type that I think we all fall in love with.  It grows in soft little mounds that can be easily plucked from the ground, and it seems to invite you to take off your shoes and tiptoe through it.  Its tiny upright leaves are densely packed together.

But even if you prefer acrocarps, you can use pleurocarps to help it get started.  Since pleurocarpous is hardier and faster growing, you can establish it first in an area and then later put the acrocarpous in the spaces in between.  That way the acrocarps will not blow or wash away and the pleurocarps can help add moisture and provide something to hang onto. Unfortunately, if you plan on trying to propagate acrocarpous, it doesn’t spread quite as quickly as the other species, pleurocarpous, which looks similar, but tends to have leaves that lie prostrate instead of standing up and they spread outwardly at a faster rate.  Pleurocarpous looks sort of like tiny, little pine boughs with lots of small outshoots to the sides.

Pleurocarpous is also said to be the best choice for growing moss on rocks because of its ability to cling.  Some common pleurocarps used in moss gardens include Climacium americanum, Bryandersonia illecebra, Thuidium delecatulum, Plagiomnium cuspidatum, Entodon seductrix, Hypnum cupressiforme, and Hypnum imponens.

Uses of Moss

Photo by Gergely Hideg

Preindustrial societies have been recorded as using moss for a variety of purposes throughout history including as stuffing for pillows and bedding, for basketry, wound dressing, diapers, and menstrual fluid absorption, insulation in boots and mittens and to fill chinks in wooden longhouses.  Tribes of the Pacific Northwest in the United States and Canada used mosses to clean salmon prior to drying, and packed wet moss into pit ovens for steaming camas bulbs.

In today’s society, not only do florists use it to lay at the base of their plants and bonsai trees, but there are numerous crafty ideas for moss use that people have come up with.  You can find for sale everything from tiny ornamental pots containing miniature moss gardens to polished stones topped with moss.  And then there are clay pots with moss grown on the outside, hanging decorative balls made of moss, and of course, it is used a lot in landscaping and water features.

My own imagination runs in the direction of pet rocks with green hair or, considering how wonderful it feels to step barefooted on moss, why not a moss bathmat?  Well, if you can dream it, someone else has, too.  As soon as this idea popped into my head, I browsed the Internet and found that someone has already invented a moss bathmat.  Using something called plastazote foam (the grey stuff that comes in a board) the designer took already-grown clumps of moss and glued them to the foam board.  My idea involved something more along the lines of growing the moss on whatever substrate I chose to use for the mat, but since moss needs no soil, only water and some sunlight, gluing should work just as well.  I guess you just need to make sure your bathroom gets a little sunlight and you will be watering your moss whenever you step out of the shower and drip on it while you are drying off.

Saiho-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan – Photo by Markus Luck

The use of moss in gardens has been inspired by the Japanese Zen gardening style of moss-carpeted forest scenes.  It is thought to add a sense of calm, age, and stillness to a garden.  Interestingly enough, many of the well-known moss gardens were created by age and circumstances rather than deliberate planting.

The moss garden located at the Saiho-ji Temple in Japan developed on its own after a flood, and it kept spreading because the locals didn’t have enough money for upkeep.  A little closer to home, the moss garden at the Bloedel Reserve, on Bainbridge Island, Washington, was created by removing shrubby underbrush and herbaceous groundcovers, thinning trees, and allowing mosses to fill in naturally.

Selling Moss for Green Roofs

Photo by Oxfordian

Moss can also be used in creating “green roofs” because moss is lighter and doesn’t require any soil substrate, and since it absorbs water like a sponge, irrigation is not necessary once the moss is established. It is also a better choice for planting on sloping roofs, since it is lighter and doesn’t require soil. The moss on your green roof will insulate to reduce costs of both summer cooling and winter heating bills, providing a habitat for wildlife such as beneficial insects, birds, bees, and butterflies.  Mosses collectively provide more carbon offset than all the trees in the world, provided we don’t pick it all out of our forests.

Those who are interested in conserving the moss growing in our natural forests believe that entrepreneurs should start growing moss as an industry.  They envision greenhouses with equipment designed to produce mosses hydroponically in moist, low-light conditions.

Personally, since my property consists of mainly woods, clay soil, and very little sunlight for growing vegetables, I might just consider moss growing as my homesteading career.

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