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.
Individually, each plant is maybe half an inch across at the top. (This particular species is rather chunky.) Collectively, they perform amazing feats of ecological engineering.
Sphagnum acidifies its environment, so when it starts to colonize a site, it can change its surroundings quite drastically. Moreover, Sphagnum can survive and grow in nutrient-poor environments, and the tissues of many species are hard to decompose. This is part of why this moss is such a great peat former, producing deposits in many sites that are metres thick. And peat buildup, in and of itself, has major ecological consequences. In ‘classic’ Sphagnum bogs, the surface has grown so high, it is disconnected from the surrounding mineral water table, and the plants that grow on the bog itself receive water and nutrients only from rain or fog.
So here are two Sphagnum plants from a local peatland. Maybe 4,000 years from now, a researcher will find their remains and draw all kinds of conclusions about the site and its environment.
In the meantime, to me, they look like they are dancing.