Long-Fibered Sphagnum moss (LFS) is a staple growing medium, either by itself or mixed with a variety of other soil ingredients, for many horticultural hobbyists, and especially for growing epiphytic plants (orchids, ferns, etc.) and our beloved NEPENTHES. But there is a huge variation in the quality and cost for retail LFS. We occasionally have a customer that is overwhelmed by the copious retail options for LFS, so we thought it might be good to give you some background information into the general reasons for this widely variable quality and the price that goes with it.

For of all some natural history. Sphagnum moss is a genus of mosses with quite a few species that typically grow in acidic, very wet conditions (bogs, fens, etc.) in locations all over the world. This habitat is not good for most plants, as most plants prefer alkaline, well-drained soil. Because of this, Sphagnum is able to take advantage of these conditions and create large areas that are entirely covered with moss. Sometimes the Sphagnum grows on top of the existing soil base (typically very sandy soil, or soil that is composed of sand and previously-decomposed Sphagnum...more about that later), and you might be able to walk out into the middle of it. But in other cases, the Sphagnum might actually be FLOATING on top of the water, or on top of a layer of decomposed Sphagnum that has the consistency of a milkshake.  These last two are what are called 'quaking bogs', because if you try to stand on them, the ground will literally ripple out for where you are standing. If you ever have the opportunity to visit a quaking bog that you can walk onto (most are protected and have boardwalks that you must stay on), be extremely cautious...you could break through the top layer and sink! In the bog, no one can hear you scream... ;-)

As the top layer of moss is exposed to light and grows, it gets heavier. this forces the lower layers of moss to sink further down into the muck, where it dies and decomposes. However, the wet, acidic conditions typically have very little oxygen present, so the moss decomposes anaerobically. This causes it to only partially decompose, and turn into what we call Sphagnum peat...the brown, fluffy stuff we use for soil mixes for temperate carnivorous plants. All this to explain that what you buy as LFS is actually just the very top layer of the Sphagnum!

So what does all this have to do with the quality and cost of LFS? While the cost of getting the LFS from the bog to your door can affect cost, there are two primary factors that go into this. First off, the SPECIES of Sphagnum plays a part in the equation. I'm sure you can understand that different parts of the world have different species; each species has different characteristics, with the strand length and the robustness of the strands/heads being the most important qualities to consider for using as a growing medium. The second and much more important factor - both for the sake of quality and from a conservation standpoint - is the way in which the LFS is obtained. Read on.

A quick disclaimer here. Our viewpoints on the extraction methods in each of these areas are based on what we have witnessed and experienced with decades of running a large-scale carnivorous plant operation and getting LFS from many different suppliers; and we have found this information to be generally valid for all suppliers in a given area. However, this might not represent every single option out there. We give you this information so you can make an informed decision when you purchase LFS, and because we care deeply for the environment and want to conserve these resources, which helps preserve wildlife habitat and the LFS supply for future generations.

The three areas of the world where most LFS originates are North America (Canada), South America (Peru, Chile, etc.), and New Zealand. Generally speaking, this these are also listed in order of increasing quality and ecologically conscious harvesting methods.

Canadian Sphagnum is typically harvested by 'strip-mining' the bog. This involves damming/draining the bog, and then using a bulldozer/excavator or similar method to 'mine' the Sphagnum out. There are several issues with this method: 1) the LFS AND peat are often harvested together, or at the least there is less concern about peat getting mixed into the LFS; 2) strip- or deep-mining kills that area, and takes a VERY long time to heal, if it happens at all; and 3) this means that the supplier must move his operation and kill even MORE Sphagnum habitat in order to get more moss. Sounds kind of like the farmers burning down the rainforest in the Amazon, doesn't it? As you might imagine, though, this means that Canadian LFS is usually the least expensive option to buy; but this savings comes at a different cost in terms of quality. Canadian LFS is usually much darker (remember all that peat?) and contains more debris (sticks, leaves, weeds, plant roots, etc.). This causes the moss to break down much more quickly, and we do not use Canadian LFS because of this...not to mention the ecological issues!

South American Sphagnum is typically harvested in a different manner. In most areas, people/companies are issued permits to 'collect' the LFS from public areas. They must follow harvesting guidelines that are provided by the landowner (often the government). And on the surface, these guidelines are meant to ensure the continued survival of the bog/Sphagnum. However, the harvesting is often the sole source of income for many of these people; and the more they can harvest, the more money they can make. We have researched this to try and find a supplier of South American Sphagnum that will affirm their LFS is harvested in an entirely eco-friendly manner; but NONE of the suppliers we have approached over the years would give us anything more than vague noncommittal statements about this. We have found that this harvesting methodology affects the quality of most of the South American LFS that is sold here in the US... same issues with debris, but to a lesser extent. Another issue, however, is that both Canadian and South American LFS are derived from a different species of Sphagnum than what you typically get from New Zealand...meaning smaller, less robust heads and shorter strand lengths. This allows the LFS to pack tighter, which causes it to hold more water (often too much for many plants) and degrade faster. So while South American LFS is much better in quality than the Canadian stuff, we also don't use it due to the lesser quality AND the risk of ecological damage to the habitat. We want to bring our customers the best, and only offer products that WE would use for our own plants!

Last and best of the options is premium New Zealand LFS. As far as we know, all LFS suppliers in New Zealand (NZ) harvest only the very top layer of the Sphagnum, and then leave that area to regenerate for up to seven YEARS before it is harvested again. There are only a few large-scale suppliers of NZ LFS, and we have found that BesGrow (the brand we stock) provides the best combination of quality and price. The LFS we obtain from them is composed entirely of Sphagnum cristata, which has the largest heads/strands and strand length of any LFS we have seen available. While they have two primary grades (Classic and Premier, which strand length being the difference), we have found that even the Classic product has strands that can be up to a foot long...plenty for even the most picky orchid grower! Also, since only the very top layer is harvested, there is very little in the way of debris, which means more great product to use. While NZ LFS is the most expensive of the options, we feel it definitely makes up for the added cost in terms of quality, eco-friendly harvesting, and longevity as a growing medium. It will typically last up to twice as long as lesser-quality LFS before it needs to be changed, meaning less time spent reworking your plants and more time to enjoy them!

If you've made it this far, you probably know everything you need to make a well-informed decision, But by all means, send us an e-mail if you have any questions. Good Growing!

Mike Howlett - PetFlyTrap.com

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