A report on this trade in forest moss which is sometimes legal, often on the black market - was made today by a botanist from Oregon State University, speaking at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America.
"Certain types of mosses and lichens, often those that hang on hardwood trees such as vine maple or big leaf maple, are prized for their use in the floral trade," said Patricia Muir, an OSU professor of botany and plant pathology. "The moss is used in planters, wreaths, hanging baskets, other floral displays. And it has become a big business and big money."
How big? That's part of the problem, no one really knows. The newest studies done by Muir suggests it must be at least $5.5 million a year, but it could also range up to $165 million annually, mostly in the Pacific Northwest and parts of the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern U.S.
Sometimes the moss is harvested legally, by permits on public lands or contractual arrangement on private land, Muir said. But there's strong evidence that the amount taken by permit or private legal arrangements is just the tip of the iceberg of actual harvests.
"Any penalties for illegal taking of moss are usually small and rarely enforced," Muir said. "There also is a lack of record keeping and reporting on many public lands, and clearly some illegal harvesting on both public and private forests."
But legalities aside, millions of pounds of moss are leaving America's forests every year, and that has ecologists concerned.