Everyone knows that live moss is the most trusty visual tool in the terrarium builder’s toolkit.
But unlike a good piece of equipment, it isn’t particularly hardy. Many moss art projects struggle to provide the conditions needed to keep the moss alive.
Enter preserved moss: the hero of the hour.
There’s no denying that preserved moss is a versatile material.
It’s the lush injection of green in an open terrarium, the un-fadable protagonist in a bright moss display.
But, preserved moss can get pricey, especially if you’re doing a big project. And here at Terrarium Tribe, we like to take the DIY approach.
So come with me, and I’ll take you through the preservation process. Let’s do it!
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Preserving Moss 101
There are two main methods of preserving moss.
- You can use the glycerol & methylated spirit method.
- Or you can go for the glycerol & warm water method.
Glycerol (sold commercially as glycerin, so that’s what I’ll call it) is a fat that will replace the moisture in the cellulose, allowing the moss to keep its springy texture.
And the methylated spirit (sold as denatured alcohol) dehydrates the moss, so more glycerin can be absorbed.
For this reason, the glycerin and denatured alcohol method is more effective, but there are reasons why you might just like to use glycerin, but more on that in a moment…
Can You Preserve Moss Without Glycerin/Chemicals? Safety Info
As far as I know, there is no au naturel method of preserving moss. If you want something to retain life-like qualities in the afterlife, it will take some chemical intervention.
However, the chemicals involved in this process are very commonly used.
- Glycerol/ glycerin is typically made from soy or coconut and is used in just about everything from food to cosmetics to laxatives. Nice…
It is somewhat toxic in high amounts – I wouldn’t go drinking gallons – but it’s about as friendly a chemical as possible and is certainly safe to use for crafts.
- Methylated spirit/ denatured alcohol, on the other hand, is used primarily as a solvent and fuel, and it is very toxic to consume. Its main ingredient (and humanity’s favorite substance) is ethanol – the alcohol found in wine, beer, and spirits.
So why is it toxic? Well, it also includes a small amount of methanol, which, despite chemically similar to its readily-consumed boozy neighbor, will land you in the hospital, if not worse. It’s also highly flammable, so no open flames near it, please!
Despite this, denatured alcohol is Healthline-approved safe to use, provided you don’t drink it.
Stay safe and stick to tequila. 👍
Hopefully, now you know which method you want to go for, so we can move on to the good old green stuff we’ve all been waiting for.
Choosing Real Moss to Preserve
When it comes to custom moss art, the options are limitless.
And the good news is, you can preserve pretty much any moss you fancy, but here are some preserved moss favorites to get you started:
- Clumpy mosses – Mood Moss and Cushion Moss.
- Sheet mosses – Fern Moss and Hypnum Moss.
- Imposter mosses – Reindeer Moss (actually a lichen) and Spanish Moss (an epiphytic plant).
For bigger projects, like a moss wall, I recommend using a few different types for maximum visual impact.
The moss game is all about contrast and texture.
Sourcing Your Moss – Where to Buy
When it comes to sourcing your live moss to preserve, I strongly advise against taking it from public places and national parks.
It might be free, but it belongs to the forest floor, and taking it is extremely unsustainable. If you have a mossy back garden or yard, however, by all means, go for it!
I don’t have anywhere to harvest moss, so I grab mine on Etsy. Sometimes you can hit the jackpot and grab several species in a bundle.
Just be sure to check it’s sustainably harvested, from moss farms, or from private land. You can read my live moss buying guide for more help shopping sustainably.
Other Supplies You Need
While glycerin is a miracle ingredient for preserving texture, it isn’t great at keeping the bright green color.
The moss will perish as you preserve it, meaning the green chlorophyll will no longer be used to photosynthesize, and the natural color will fade somewhat.
You might like to use a dye to keep things bright.
Fabric dye is a popular choice, but I’ve read a lot of anecdotal information saying the moss doesn’t tend to absorb it very well. Food coloring seems to be the most effective (and non-toxic) option.
And yes, you can dye it whatever color you want. Be my guest if you want to make a Barbie pink moss wall.
Just know that it isn’t suitable for closed terrariums as the dye could run if it gets wet. That’s why we use live terrarium moss.
You’ll also need a bowl you don’t eat from, something to stir with, something heavy to pin the moss down, somewhere for the moss to dry (like a rack), and lastly, but importantly, a peg for your nose because it can smell nasty…
How to Preserve Moss (Step-by-Step)
- 1. Pull out any debris, ensure there are no critters hitching a ride, and rinse it in water until it looks clean.
- 2. Squeeze out as much excess water as possible and let it dry a little over the next few hours.
- 3. It’s preserving time – crack open a window and get your space well ventilated.
- 4. Mix your preserving mixture in your bowl [one part denatured alcohol and two parts glycerin] or [one part glycerin and two parts warm water – the water needs to be warm for it to work], and mix in any dye you’re using.
- 5. Put your moss in the bowl and ensure it’s fully submerged; use something heavy to pin it down if necessary.
- 6. Leave it for 10/15 minutes for the denatured alcohol and glycerin solution. Leave it at least an hour if you’re using the water and glycerin solution; though I have read that it can take longer, I don’t think there’s any harm in leaving it a few more hours.
- 7. When it’s ready, pull it out, squeeze out the excess (gloves come with the highest of recommendations), and leave it somewhere to dry.
- 8. Wash your damn hands and leave it alone for a few days!
- 9. Use it in your custom design as you see fit.
That’s All for Today
Hurrah, you made it! I hope you’ve been significantly less confused than I found myself while researching this.
Which method have you gone for? Let me know in the comments & feel free to share any tips/tricks you’ve picked up along the way.