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Individual peat moss plants consist of a main stem, with tightly arranged clusters of branch fascicles usually consisting of two or three spreading branches and two to four hanging branches.The top of the plant, or capitulum, has compact clusters of young branches.Their northernmost populations lie in the archipelago of Svalbard, Arctic Norway at 81° N.In the Southern Hemisphere, the largest peat areas are in southern Chile and Argentina, part of the vast Magellanic Moorland (circa 44,000 square km).Peat moss can be distinguished from other moss species by its unique branch clusters.The plant and stem color, the shape of the branch and stem leaves, and the shape of the green cells are all characteristics used to identify peat moss to species.

A distinction is sometimes made between sphagnum moss, the live moss growing on top of a peat bog, and 'sphagnum peat moss' (North American usage) or 'sphagnum peat' (British usage), the latter being the slowly decaying matter underneath.

Soon afterwards the protonema develops buds and these differentiate into its characteristic, erect, leafy, branched gametophyte with chlorophyllose cells and hyaline cells.

This stage dominates the environment where Sphagnum grows, obliterating and burying the protonema and eventually building up into layers of dead moss called peat.

Peat areas are also found in New Zealand and Tasmania.

In the Southern Hemisphere, however, peat landscapes may contain many moss species other than Sphagnum.

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