Irish moss is a wild plant that grows 3 to 7 inches high from rocks on the ocean bottom. These plants range in colour from yellowish to brown to reddish purple. We eat and use Irish moss nearly every day.
Irish moss is a small plant but it helps make up many of our favourite foods and produce. When we consume ice cream, chocolate milk, salad dressings, sherbet, beer, etc. or use water based paints, shampoos, toothpaste, cosmetics, etc., we are usually using carrageenan, a starch-like substance that is taken from Irish moss.
Dairy companies use about 90 cent of carrageenan to thicken ice cream, milk shakes and puddings. It prevents the formation of ice crystals in the making of ice cream. Carrageenen also produces a smooth mixture in these products.
Prior to the 1950s and 6’s, Irish moss grew in abundance on the ocean bottom around these areas. When Irish moss matured, it would drift ashore in great abundance. Many people would gather Irish moss from the shores in the late summer and fall seasons. Some would use horse and carts, others their tractors or trucks.
I recall my father and Harold Bennett being two Pictou Island fishermen who did this as part of their livelihood. My dad would gather this moss along the shores usually at the West End or North Side of Pictou Island. This product would drift ashore in piles, especially after a period of strong winds. It, however, would usually be mixed with other seaweeds, kelp, eelgrass, rope, garbage, etc.
I can still see my father on his hands and knees sorting through this moss on the shore until he acquired a trailer load. He would haul this wet Irish moss home with his old Ford Harris tractor and trailer and spread it on our dirt driveway. Our driveway was at least 150 yards or more in length. The Irish moss had to be spread so that it would dry in the sun. More money was paid for dry moss and it was much easier to handle when it was dry. After drying on one side, the moss would have to be hand turned with a garden rake so that it would dry on the other side. There were many times when I recall our entire driveway being completely covered with this Irish moss.
After a few sunny days of drying, this moss would have to be bagged. I recall us kids helping our father rake the dry Irish moss into piles on the driveway. We would then help him put the dried piles of moss into large burlap bags. The bags of moss were then tied and stored in our barn. Each bag might contain 30-40 pounds of moss.
The Slo-Mo-Shun was my father’s boat at that time. She was a sleek 30-footer that he had built in 1951. After weeks of back breaking work and when about 50-plus bags of moss would be gathered, Dad and my brother Vincent would pack a load of these bags onto the Slo-mo-Shun and sail across to a moss plant in Charolettetown, PEI. Sometimes he would have to make two or three trips to PEI with the moss he had acquired. During those years, approximately 1.5 cents was paid per pound for wet moss and approximately 4.5 cents per pound for dry moss.
These people who gathered Irish moss from the shores didn’t get rich by doing this sort of labour. It was however an honest means for these proud individuals to feed and cloth their families and this back breaking work was rarely frowned upon.