The Moss Shall Set Them Free


My secretary stuck a Post-it note on my office door. “Telephone call from your prison warden.”

Although I am a professor of forest ecology with no criminal record, I had grown used to such messages. The note continued: “He said Inmate Hunter has another hypothesis to test. He wants to put moss flats under big-leaf maple trees in the prison yard, where they’ll get natural throughfall — does that make sense?”

The Moss-in-Prisons project is one part of a nascent effort to counteract the destructive effects of collecting wild-grown mosses from old-growth forests for the floral trade. Inmate Hunter and half a dozen other prisoners were participating in this ecological research and outreach program I initiated in 2005. I told the warden that the request did make sense, since mosses in the wild grow best on maple trees, a fact I had briefly mentioned when I first met with the prisoners.

Since 2000, the moss industry has grown rapidly, producing nearly $200 million in revenue in 2005 and raising concern among ecologists because canopy-dwelling mosses fill important ecosystem roles and are slow to regenerate. Mosses capture and retain atmospheric nutrients, provide habitats for arboreal invertebrates, and supply foraging locales for arboreal vertebrates. Recent research has shown that moss communities take decades to regrow after disturbance, far longer than what would make for sustainable harvest at present removal rates from ancient forests.

No protocols exist for growing mosses commercially or in large quantities. To learn how best to grow them, I needed help from people who had long periods of time available to observe and measure the growing mosses, access to extensive space to lay out flats of plants, and fresh eyes and minds to put forward innovative solutions. These criteria, I thought, might be shared by many incarcerated people.

The biology of mosses makes them suitable for novice botanists, as mosses possess poikilohydric foliage that enables them to survive drying without damage and to resume growth after wetting. Mosses lying in herbarium drawers for over one hundred years have been revived by simply applying a little water and bringing them into the light. They are resilient to under- and overwatering, a characteristic that increased the probability that the prisoners would succeed in nurturing them. Carrying out primary research on how to grow mosses in captivity could also provide an opportunity for people with no access to nature and little opportunity to use their intellects to learn about the process of research and the rationale for plant conservation.

After scouting prisons in my region, I found the superintendent of Cedar Creek Correctional Center in Littlerock, Washington, amenable to our program. Our moss-growing team comprised a warden, two of my students, a community volunteer, and six inmates who rotated in as their fellow prisoners’ sentences ran out. Our questions were basic: Which species should we consider for commercial farming? How much water and nutrients do mosses need? Should solutions be delivered as droplets or as mist? At the outset of the project, my students collected moss samples with a permit from the Olympic National Forest. We gave each inmate a notebook and pencil to write observations. The prisoners quickly learned to identify common moss species by their scientific names. They devised their own ways to grow mosses (for example, hanging clumps of moss in mesh bags), delivered water with medical tubing and hardware clamps, and learned how and why to retrieve randomized subsets of mosses to air-dry for our moss growth measurements.

The results of the project were dramatic. After eighteen months, we all shared the excitement of knowing which mosses grew fastest and which watering treatment was most effective. We have since been working with two online nature gift companies to sell “sustainably grown moss pots” using the mosses the prisoners have propagated. We include information about the ecological importance of mosses on a hangtag that accompanies each pot.

Inmate Hunter joined the horticulture program at the local community college after his release, with a career goal of opening his own plant nursery. Inmate Juarez told me he had taken an extra mesh bag of moss from the greenhouse and placed it inside the drawer of his bedside night table. Each morning he opens the drawer. “And though it’s been shut up in a dark place for so long, the moss is still alive and growing,” he said, grinning. And then, more quietly, “Like me.”