Family: Caryophyllaceae (Pink family)
my garden, I sometimes have trouble leaving well enough alone.
There are many moments when I envy those
who put in their plants, achieve the look they’re after,
and head for the lawn chair to read a good book.
lawn chair stays empty and I’m behind
in my reading. I spend my time rearranging, replacing, and
re-doing. Some of this happens because of poor planning, but
much of it comes from what my spouse calls a quirky desire
to do something different.
Alas, I fear my garden will always be a work-in-progress.
This year, I was unhappy with the inability of creeping thyme (Thymus
praecox) to creep far enough in two years to fill in the
spaces between the large stones in one area of my yard. The
thyme spread more quickly over the rocks than it did around
them. The soil might have been too damp and the thyme might
have been sun-deprived. But I didn’t give it a chance
to explain. Instead, I tore most of it out and looked for an
interesting replacement. It would have been sensible to opt
for blue star creeper (Pratia pedunculata, sometimes
sold as Laurentia fluviatilis), a very dependable
performer in our area. But “sensible” is not always
my first choice when I’m gardening. I tend to take calculated
risks and try new things. Blue star creeper was already established
in another area of the yard. I wanted something different.
like the clumpy look of Irish moss—it
reminds me of the rolling green hills in the Emerald Isle—and
I was attracted to the sprinkling of small white flowers I
spotted in a patch planted curbside in a parking strip on South
Hill. So Sagina subulata it would be for me.
Sagina subulata and Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’—Irish
moss and Scotch moss, respectively, with the former deep green
and the latter, chartreuse—are not true mosses. They
are perennial plants, grown primarily for their foliage. They
have a soft, lush feel and appearance, and they will take light
foot traffic when placed—as my Irish moss is now—between
stepping-stones. They hail from northern Europe and are hardy
to 30 degrees below zero. The British Natural History Museum
lists S. subulata as native to Scotland where it is
known in English as Heath Pearlwort and in Gaelic as Mungan
S. subulata was
one of the first plants to be named—by Antoine-Laurent De Jussieu—in
the modern system of plant nomenclature. Sagina in
Latin means “fattening,” attesting to the fact that sheep
prospered in fields where the plants flourished. I suspect
that has more to do with favorable growing conditions for forage
crops—marked by the presence of Sagina subulata—than
it does with the nutritional value of Irish moss. Subulata tells
us that the leaves are “awl-shaped”—that
is, they are slender, cylindrical, and taper to a point. The
small white flowers are borne singly, from mid-spring to early
summer. A similar plant—Arenaria verna—has
flowers in clusters but is otherwise nearly identical in appearance
and is also known as “Irish moss.” There is yet
another growing thing called “Irish moss,” but
it is a red seaweed with the official moniker of Chrondrus
crispus. That kind of Irish moss is the source of carrageenan,
a natural jelling agent that is added to edible products from
bottled salad dressing to toothpaste.
you won’t find seaweed in my back yard.
Far from being true moss or red algae, the Irish moss I’ve
planted is a member of the large Caryophyllaceae family. It
is related to Lychnis (rose campion and Maltese cross), Dianthus (carnations
and sweet William), Saponaria (soapwort), and Gypsophila (baby’s
breath). Common chickweed is a member of the same family.
all these members of the Caryophyllaceae clan thrive in my
garden—need I mention chickweed again?—I
can posit that Irish moss will do well, too. I read that Sagina
subulata dislikes hot summers—no problem there!
I’m told that even it if does brown out, it will green
up again in cool fall weather. It is bothered by slugs, evidently,
so I’ll watch out for them, liquid slug-death and salt
shaker at the ready. I’ve planted my S. subulata deeply
in soil that is rich with organic material, and I’ve
added some time-release fertilizer, which I’ll replenish
next spring. The small plugs are placed six inches apart where
they will receive direct sun into the afternoon—enough
for Irish moss, perhaps, if not for creeping thyme. I know
Irish moss demands moisture, so I’ll use the gray water
from our household. In short, I’ve followed directions
and now I’ll hope for the best.
the event my Irish moss bites the dust—suddenly
and completely, as some here have seen theirs do—I’ll
probably go back to the tried-and-true blue star creeper. If
I must have Irish moss around, I’ve just learned that
it can be used as a living liner for hanging baskets, an alternative
to coco fiber or sphagnum moss. Something different,
a new “look”—that’s what my gardening
is all about.