The star of my most recent artistic adventure is a plant that is very dear to my heart: Sphagnum, commonly known as peat moss. At one point in my life, I spent many hours each day staring down a microscope, trying to identify half-decomposed plant fragments recovered from peat cores. A lot of these fragments came from Sphagnum, a moss that is small but mighty indeed.
Sphagnum is a prominent plant in bogs and poor fens, peat-accumulating wetlands that cover large tracts of land in boreal, subarctic, and oceanic regions. In these ecosystems, cold, waterlogged conditions limit decay, so when plants die, their remains stick around and build up over time. About half of this dead plant material – or peat – is carbon.
Over the last 10,000 years or so, peatlands have taken up and accumulated vast amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide and stored it in dead plant matter, which is why today, their fate is important in the context of global change. They also perform important hydrological functions in many watersheds, and serve as a home for many species.
And these rather stunning little guys play a huge role in making all that happen.