Saturday, November 11, 2017

Sphagnum Moss to the Rescue in World War I by Karla Stover

Image result for sphagnum mossOn September 23, 1990, the first episode of Ken Burns' Civil War documentary aired. Thanks, in no small part, to the charismatic Shelby Foote, the documentary's popularity has never waned. However, I have always been fascinated by World War I, and especially the fall of the Romanov dynasty. I recently took a DNA test and it showed I have Russian blood, but more than that, innovations from WW I moved us into a more sophisticated lifestyle. Kimberly-Clarke began to mass produce items made from cellucotton, and sanitary napkins were one result. A German doctor came up with the idea of treating rickets with a sun lamp. Day light savings, which Benjamin Franklin has proposed in 1784 as a way to save on candles. Tea bags, wrist watches, paper hankies, zippers, stainless steel--and the list goes on. But--though cellucotton was also used in medical dressings, the supply was never enough. Enter sphagnum moss. Yes, moss, the stuff that grows on the top of a peat bog. Peat moss is the decaying matter below.

For hundreds of years, uses for sphagnum have been well-known. In Sweden, it was used to make coarse paper; in Germany it was mixed with wool and woven into a somewhat abrasive cloth. The Finns somehow made bread with it during famines. However, no one used it more than the Native Americans. Across Canada and in the Pacific Northwest, Indian women kept baskets of dried sphagnum to chink their wigwams or longhouses. They put it in gloves and footwear to act as insulation; They wove it into  baskets, twisted it into candle wicks, scrubbed the slime and toxins off fish, put it in papoose carriers to act as a diaper, used it as toilet paper, and during menstruation.

And then, the United States went war.

As far back as 1513, at the battle of Flodden Field, highlanders staunched their wounds with sphagnum. The practice continued in various wars right up until the American John "Blackjack" Pershing realized we were ill-equipped to fight. The call went our for practically everything--including medical dressings, and that's where sphagnum came in: it replaced cotton. Let me explain.

The branches of sphagnum spread away from the stem and hang in clusters. The walls of the branches have large, clear, dead cells. The cells have pores, and the wall of each pore is punctures toward the outside. Each pore acts independently from the others and stores the fluids with which it comes in contact. A spring-like coil in the cell presses out and keeps it from collapsing. As a result, the plant has the ability to absorb up to twenty times its dry weight. Armed with this knowledge, the United States government appoint a Moss Czar--a man named Harry Smith. After touring the country, he determined that Pacific Coast moss was the best.

Thus began moss drives.

When a local newspaper announced a "moss drive," whole towns practically shut down. People took picnics, requisitioned vehicles, and headed out to gather moss which they took to large drying barns. Once dry, it went to groups who picked it clean so it could to make Pershing Packs.

A Pershing Pack consisted of layers of paper, moss, and a little cotton. The resultant "piles" were folded into various-sized dressings, sterilized in autoclaves, and sent to field hospitals. Because of moss's ability to soak up fluids, a Pershing Pack worked wonders on bleeding or suppurating wounds.

I always look down when I'm walking, especially in the woods. There are approximately 10,000 species of moss--all lovely to look at.

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