Learn which plants thrive in your Hardiness Zone with our new interactive map!

The History of Peat Moss

By Deborah Harding ; Updated September 21, 2017
Peat bricks are cut from a drained peat bog.
basket with peat image by Han van Vonno from Fotolia.com

Peat moss is a natural product that has been used over the centuries. It is ancient soil mixed with plant matter that is submerged under water, creating a bog. It is harvested in many different countries including China, Ireland, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Soviet Union and in the United States. The uses of peat moss are many because it is plentiful. Peat causes no damage to the environment to harvest and it goes back to the earth when its usefulness is over.

Early History

A peat bog is mostly underwater and must be drained to get to the peat.
whixall moss image by hazel proudlove from Fotolia.com

Peat moss is ancient sphagnum moss, reed or sedge that has mixed with soil to form a dense matting of material. Peatlands have been in existence since the Stone Age and probably provided food for many animals. In Ireland, there have been ancient historical digs in the peatlands, proving that they were in existence early in history. Neolithic artifacts have been discovered under the peat in Ireland as well as artifacts from other periods of time, including sacred and burial sites. There is written evidence of peat being used for fuel during the 7th century.

Food History

Peat was fed to cattle to make nutrients go into the blood system more easily.
Cow image by c from Fotolia.com

Peat dust was mixed with molasses and given to livestock. It was thought that this made other food stay in the stomach longer and the nutrients would be better absorbed into the animal's system. It was eaten by humans in China during famine periods throughout history and the Laplanders made bread from it.

Farming History

Peat as bedding kept livestock clean and dry in the winter.
Viehwirtschaft im Stall - französische Charolais image by Marem from Fotolia.com

Peat was used in the 1700s and 1800s as bedding material for animals. It was much more plentiful in some areas than hay or straw and worked just as well if not better. It absorbed liquid, so it kept livestock clean and dry when they had to be indoors. It also neutralized any odors from animal waste.

History as Fuel

Peat moss was used to heat homes in Ireland more than 1,300 years ago. Peat was very plentiful, more so than even wood, and it burned well to make a house warm in cold weather. It was also used to heat fires and stoves for cooking. Once coal was mined, using peat for fuel took a back seat, but once World War I started, it became the mode of heating and cooking once again. In Ireland, peat moss was used to produce electricity since the 1950s.

Medicinal History

The tea of peat moss helped with bleeding issues.
tea image by Photosani from Fotolia.com

An old remedy uses tea made from peat that will stop bleeding and help any diseases related with the eyes. Sphagnum moss was used to dress the wounds of soldiers in World War I. It has been used to treat sores and wounds since ancient times as well. It was developed into surgical dressing in Germany and is still used today.

Harvesting Methods

In the 17th and 18th centuries in Ireland, landowners were allocated areas in the peatland where they could cut peat. It was always cut by using a turf knife. Hand cutting peat was the way it was harvested for centuries until a modern method was developed. The bog was drained and a device pulled by horse or vehicle was used to cut the peat. Cutting was the most common method of harvesting up until the 1980s when another method was developed using a vacuum that sucked the peat from the land. In some countries, equipment is used somewhat like strip mining equipment to cut peat from the earth. It is called peat mining instead of harvesting.

Current Uses

Peat moss is an important supply in the garden to make soil light and airy.
Garden image by Chad Perry from Fotolia.com

Today, a gardener would be hard pressed to develop a good soil mix in his or her garden without the use of bales of peat moss. It makes the soil light and plants are able to grow more easily while water and nutrients are retained better in the garden. It is used extensively in greenhouses and to develop seedlings.


About the Author


Deborah Harding has been writing for over nine years. Beginning with cooking and gardening magazines, Harding then produced a gardening and cooking newsletter and website called Prymethyme Herbs in 1998. Published books include "Kidstuff" and "Green Guide to Herb Gardening." She has a Bachelor of Music from Youngstown State University and sings professionally.