Have you ever wondered about edible moss? You’re on the right page.
The amount of life we can find just by looking at the ground on which we stand can be amazing. I constantly find myself stopping to take pictures of mushrooms, little beetles, and other anomalies while I’m out in the woods hiking, hunting, or taking care of my animals. One thing that I constantly come across is moss.
Anybody who is a self-proclaimed mycophile will most likely find moss of interest as well. I’ve always been fascinated by it — by its structure, by how it feels under a bare foot. I’m of the belief that a stone patio is incomplete until it has moss growing prolifically through all its cracks.
Yet moss has value aside from its aesthetic purposes, and the prepper’s knowledge base is incomplete if he doesn’t at least have an inkling of some of the miraculous benefits of the humble and often-stepped-on moss. The first thing you may be wondering is whether it is edible or not. So, let’s take a closer look.
[Note: for purposes of simplicity, both the lichens and the mosses referred to below will be called “moss.”]
What Are the Varieties of Edible Moss?
Due to lack of flavor, the appropriate way to look at mosses is as survival food, not for their culinary value. If you’re absolutely starving and you have little chance of finding anything else to eat, they can be life-savers. Otherwise, moss has properties that make it better for other purposes. That said, let’s take a look at the mosses that are edible.
Reindeer Moss (Cladonia rangiferina)
You can powder this to use as a flour. However, it’s mainly used as such to stretch your flour supply, rather than as the sole source of flour. In other words, it’s a filler. According to the Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, you can also use it like a cornstarch to make blancmange (a sweet Jell-O-like dish that looks like flan and is normally sweetened with almonds).
Irish Moss (Chondrus crispus)
“Irish moss” is a type of seaweed, really. It releases a gelatin as it is boiled (doesn’t that sound delicious?). It can be found from North Carolina northward. If you boil it in water, you’ll end up with a rather tasteless soup/jelly that will have some nutritional value to it, though more in the way of vitamins and minerals than in calories.
Iceland Moss (Cetraria islandica)
This is another moss that can be dried, ground, and turned into a flour in the same manner as reindeer moss.
Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides)
Really, the only part of Spanish moss that you can eat is the new growth a small strip of green — at the end of each piece of “hair.” There’s not really much to it though, and it’s rather tasteless. If you were truly starving for food, it would be something, but it’s most likely not worth your time. If you have the choice, I would pick the Spanish moss that comes from the trees rather than that which comes from the ground. Reports indicate that it is primarily the ground-based Spanish moss that is liable to contain chiggers
Rock Tripe (Umbilicaria spp. and Gyrophora spp.)
This roundish gray/brown blister can be found attached to rocks from a central stalk. You want to simmer this one for an hour before adding it to soups. Again, it’s not great eating.
How Dangerous Is Edible Moss?
There are approximately 20,000 different types of moss and lichen in the world, and only two are what would be considered poisonous: wolf lichen (Letharia vulpine) and powdered sunshine lichen (Vulpicida pinastri), both of which — thankfully — are yellow.
Still, I would still stick to eating moss that I was 100% sure that I was able to identify. You can already end up with incredibly severe stomach pain if you eat moss raw — due to the acidic conditions it creates in the stomach — and I personally don’t like to eat wild edibles I’m not 100% certain of. I certainly believe that this is a wise practice with moss.
[As far as the stomach pains go, the more you boil moss and change out the water, the more palatable it will be, and the less likely you’ll end up with severe pain.]
Can You Drink Water Squeezed from Moss?
Since moss is so absorbent, it can often be found chock full of water that you can drink. All you have to do is pick up the clump of moss and squeeze it like a sponge — wringing the water out either directly into your mouth or into a container of some sort. I would personally go the container route, as this will then let you go through a water purification process. Even though this water is supposedly sterile, it is wise to give yourself another layer of security in the form of UV light, water filters, or the like if this is at all possible.
It’s also important that you don’t pick moss near animal droppings or covered in mud if you’re going to use this approach to drink directly from the moss.
Sphagnum Moss as a Wound Dressing
Perhaps one of the most interesting uses of moss comes from the ability to use a special type of it — sphagnum moss (aka peat moss) — as an antiseptic. Edible moss might save a life, but use of it as an antiseptic might save more lives.
Sphagnum moss actually has a pretty extensive track record throughout history of being used as a form of battle dressing for those who have been injured in combat. Gaelic-Irish sources note that it was used in the Battle of Clontarf (April 23, 1014), and Native Americans actually used to use it to pack their baby cribs and wrappings with it due to its ability to soak up moisture.
It was World War I, however, where sphagnum moss really took to the spotlight. Due to a severe shortage of cotton (due to the late discovery that cotton could be used in explosives), there had grown to be a drastic problem getting the appropriate amount of bandages in field hospitals to treat the wounded.
Allied botanist Isaac Bayley Balfour and military surgeon Charles Walker noted that the Germans were using sphagnum moss extensively to treat their wounded (actually conscripting POWs and civilians to gather it for them), and concluded that it was time for the Allies to do the same or people were going to begin dying from preventable causes — all because of a lack of appropriate packing, compresses, and bandages.
The botanist and surgeon team began pushing for the Allies to rely on sphagnum moss as well, and the rest is history. How many thousands of lives were saved as a result of those two men’s contribution to the war effort has been lost to the fog of time, but the fact of the matter is that they did save lives.
Sphagnum moss is 90% dead cells, and due to the nature in which these cells are constructed, they’re incredibly absorbent. Sphagnum can actually hold up to 22 times its weight in liquid, making it twice as absorbent as cotton. This means that it can easily help to stop bleeding, soak up pus, and soak up any other seepage that is coming from a wound.
The moss actually acts as an antiseptic as well. It’s comprised of special sugar molecules that interact with what they are in contact with, creating an acidic environment that inhibits the growth of bacteria and makes for a sterile bandage. Remarkably, moss bandages and compresses don’t mildew either, and prove to have a deodorizing effect. They proved to be so effective as a wound dressing that both the US and the UK ended up organizing “moss drives” during the war to encourage civilians to collect as much of it as possible for the troops. In 1916, the Canadian Red Cross in Ontario actually ended up sending 1 million dressings, 2 million compresses, and 1 million pads — all comprised of sphagnum moss — for wounded Allied soldiers throughout Europe.
So next time you see this humble moss as you go on a hike through the woods, realize that it is a much bigger player in world history than you ever would have expected it to be from first glance.
Other Uses for Mosses
As mentioned above, moss was used in the past by the Native Americans in order to make diapers for their babies due to its hyper-absorbency. For that same reason, moss can also be used to craft a makeshift menstrual pad if you are out in the woods for whatever reason and don’t have access to one. You’ll need a bandana or something similar, but by wrapping a clump of moss together in the bandana in such a manner that it all stays together (and so that it is the cloth — not the moss — that has direct contact with your body) you’ll have a pretty good makeshift pad.
Due to the inherent fluffiness of moss as well, it can serve as a great form of bedding in a bushcraft-survival situation as well. The ground is a terrific absorber of heat, and if you attempt to sleep on hard ground in the woods at night, it’ll suck all of the warmth right out of you. If you’ve ever attempted tent backpacking without a proper ground pad, you know what I mean.
In a similar vein, moss can also function as a fairly decent form of insulation. If you end up in a survival or SHTF situation and desperately need to find some way to retain warmth, stuffing your coat/sleeping bag/fleece with moss can assist in retaining your body heat.
Whether you lichen or not (couldn’t resist that one), moss has a lot of benefits to it — particularly sphagnum moss — just probably not in the forms that you initially thought that it did. Food-wise, edible moss is at best a stopgap measure. It’s virtually empty of calories, and the amount of time and energy it would take you to collect enough to be worth your while wouldn’t measure up with the amount of calories that you would then ingest.
However, if you’re out in the wild and somebody ends up with a pretty bad laceration, puncture wound, or bullet hole, then the usefulness of moss enters a whole new world.
Are there other interesting facts or survival uses that you know of for moss that we didn’t cover above? Have you any past experience with eating moss? Let us know in the comments below!