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Sphagnum moss and wound care

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As I wandered through my yard desperately looking for signs of spring, I have noticed that there is an abundance of moss.  In an effort to try to utilize as many wild things as I can, I decided to look in to the uses for this lovely little plant.  

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There mainly are 2 types of moss – sphagnum moss and sphagnum peat moss. While sphagnum moss is the living top layer of a sphagnum bog, sphagnum peat moss is dead residue beneath this live layer. Hence, before harvesting the sphagnum peat moss from the lower levels of the bog, the harvesters must first remove the top few inches of the live sphagnum moss.  (photos and information from http://www.gardeningoncloud9.com/200903/sphagnum-moss-peat-moss/)  Here in north western Pennsylvania, this is a very common type of moss, found in woodland and marsh areas.  
According to Grieve in A Modern Herbal (written in 1931, and the War that is referenced is World War 1). Every part of the moss is permeated with minute tubes and spaces, resulting in a system of delicate capillary tubes, having the effect of a very fine sponge. The cells readily absorb water and retain it. The water can be squeezed out, but the Moss does not collapse and is ready to take in fluid again.  … The presence of these capillary cells makes Sphagnum economically useful. In horticulture, long before the war, this Moss had a marketable value, in combination with peat fibre, being widely used as a rooting medium for orchids, on account of the remarkable manner in which it retains moisture, a handful when wet being like a sponge, and when chopped and mixed with soil in pots preventing moisture passing too quickly through the soil. … And though it is only in quite recent years that Sphagnum Moss has come to the fore in the dressing of wounds, bygone generations recognized its value for this purpose. A Gaelic Chronicle of 1014 relates that the wounded in the battle of Clontarf ‘stuffed their wounds with moss,’ and the Highlanders after Flodden stanched their bleeding wounds by filling them with bog moss and soft grass. Stricken deer are known to drag their wounded limbs to beds of Sphagnum Moss. The Kashmiri have used it from time immemorial and so have the Esquimaux. An old writer says:’the Lapland matrons are well acquainted with this moss. They dry it and lay it in their children’s cradles to supply the place of mattress, bolster and every covering, and being changed night and morning, it keeps the infant remarkable clean, dry and warm.’

The growing plant, with its underlying layers of withered stems and leaves, is collected, picked clean from other plants, pineneedles, etc., and dried. It is then lightly packed in bags of butter-muslin, which are sterilized before being placed on the wound.

Sphagnum Moss has important advantages (as an absorbent) over cotton-wool. Many materials, including other kinds of moss, are equally soft and light, but none can compare with it in power of absorption, due to its sponge-like structure. Prepared Sphagnum can absorb more than twice as much moisture as cotton, a 2-OZ. dressing absorbing up to 2 lb. Even the best prepared cottonwool lacks the power to retain discharges possessed by Sphagnum. A pad of Sphagnum Moss absorbs the discharge in lateral directions, as well as immediately above the wound, and holds it until fully saturated in all parts of the dressing before allowing any to escape. The even absorption of the moss is one of its chief virtues, for the patient is saved a good deal of disturbance, since the dressing does not require to be changed so frequently.

In civil hospitals, in times of peace, the deficiencies of cotton-wool are not so much noticed, the majority of wounds being those made by surgeons under ideal conditions, but for a variety of reasons the wounds of our men at the front were of such a suppurating character as to require specially absorbent dressings, and overworked doctors and nurses constantly expressed themselves thankful for a dressing that lasted longer than cotton-wool. Time and suffering are saved, as well as expense: the absorbent pads of moss are soft, elastic and very comfortable, easily packed and convenient to handle.

—Preparation of the Dressings—The moss after being dried and carefully picked over is now ready for the dressings. All used in home hospitals is put up loosely in small, flat muslin bags, of a fairly close but very thin muslin, the bags only being loosely filled (as a rule 2 OZ. of the moss to each bag, 10 inches by 14 inches), as allowance has to be made for the way in which the moss swells on being brought into contact with moisture.

Sphagnum Moss pads are supplied both plain and sterilized (sublimated), some hospitals preferring to sterilize them themselves, but a considerable proportion being sterilized at the depots and sent out ready for use. The filled bags are passed through a solution of corrosive sublimate by a worker in rubber gloves, squeezed through a little mangle and dried again, that they may return to the specified weight, for after the bath they are 2 OZ. too heavy. The object of sublimating the moss is not for any antiseptic effect on a wound (as of course it does not come into direct contact with the skin) but to neutralize the discharge which may come through the inner dressings.

For use in field-hospitals, etc., the moss is packed in compressed cakes cut to a certain size, which are more conveniently packed for sending abroad than the soft dressings, these small slabs being also placed, each in a muslin bag, very much too large for the size of the dry cake put in them, for obvious reasons. There was a munition factory in Scotland, where much of the moss was sublimated and part of it compressed by hydraulic power into these cakes. The very hydraulic press which one hour was molding shell bases, was in the next devoting its energy to compressing the healing cakes of Sphagnum Moss.

Sphagnum Moss was also used during the War in conjunction with Garlic, one of the best antiseptics. The Government bought up tons of the bulbs, which were sent out to the front; the raw juice expressed, diluted with water, was put on swabs of sterilized Sphagnum Moss and applied to wounds. Where this treatment was adopted there were no specific complications, and thousands of lives were thus saved.

http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/m/mossph54.html

 

 

 

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