The Story Behind Spanish Moss
Author: Celeste Booth5 Comments
If you live in or have visited the southern regions of the United States, Central America or South America you have seen the thick, drooping, grey “hair” that hangs from so many grand trees in the region. Locally know as “Spanish Moss” this plant has no relation to the moss family. In fact, Spanish moss is a bromeliad. It is a tiny epiphyte that clings to itself as it dangles from tree limbs, gulping moisture from the air.
Spanish moss belongs to the Tillandsia genus of bromeliads. However, unlike most epiphytic Tillandsia which have roots that act as anchors, Spanish moss does not have any roots at all. Many epiphytes have roots that anchor them to their host tree. Instead, Spanish moss uses tiny scales on its leaves and its curved structure to cling to its host tree. Each individual Tillandsia usneoides is at most 6 cm long and 1 mm wide. The individual plants cling to one another creating huge structures that hang from trees. The flowers on each plant are minuscule, however, on large growths of spanish moss they can create a noticeable fragrance at night, during late spring and early summer.
Spanish moss reproduces in two ways: through seed and, like many other bromeliads, by producing pups. Pups are small copies of the plant that grow from an original. Spanish moss spreads to new locations through various methods. Seeds are structured so that they are easily caught by the wind and land in the bark of new trees. Also, portions of growing Spanish moss are carried off by the wind or birds to a new tree. Once there the plant will continue to propagate vegetatively. Spanish moss tends to prefer two common southern trees: live oaks and bald cypress. It will, however, grow on most trees if the conditions are right. Spanish moss is not parasitic and therefore does not harm the trees directly. The plant obtains its own nutrients. But large growths of Spanish moss can block out the sun and hinder photosynthesis in the leaves of host tree occasionally causing minor damage. Spanish moss can hold significant amounts of water and becomes very heavy when wet. This can also lead to damage and broken limbs.
Spanish moss prefers warm climates with high humidity. In the United States, Spanish moss ranges from eastern Virginia to the south and west to Texas. Humidity and rain are essential for the plant to be able to grow. Spanish moss has special scales found on its leaves,called trichomes that help it take in water and other nutrients. Nutrients are absorbed from the air and even at times from the matter found on the surfaces of the leaves that the spanish moss covers. Because it so easily absorbs material from the air, Spanish moss is susceptible to damage from pollution. It can also be tested to identify what pollutants are found in a specific area.
Spanish moss is very important for biodiversity. Its large mats that drip from trees harbor a great variety of insects, birds, three species of bats, frogs, lizards, snakes and more. Yellow-throated warblers and northern parulas make their nests within mats of Spanish moss during the spring and summer. There is one species of spider that can only be found living in Spanish moss. It is called Pelegrina tillandsia, named after its home. Spanish moss can sometimes house chiggers especially when close to the ground so take extra care when handling.
Spanish moss has a variety of human uses and at one time was harvested and ginned commercially. The peak of the commercial harvest of Spanish moss may have come in the late 1930s. Through a specific curing and ginning process the outer grey bark was removed and the remaining filaments were used for upholstery in cars, furniture and mattresses. The mattresses were well known for being exceptionally cool. The grey bark was often used for mulch as well. It was harvested for commercial use until 1970 when synthetic fibers made its use obsolete. Smaller portions of Spanish moss are still harvested primarily for craft work and mulch. It is also occasionally used as bulk feed for livestock, but contains very little nutrients. Sterilized moss can be purchased at garden centers, but you can also harvest it yourself. If you choose to harvest Spanish moss for indoor crafts or even for mulch you will want to cure it in the oven at a low temperature for at least a half hour. For smaller amounts you can microwave it. This will kill any bugs, fungus or mold that will be found in the moss. Be sure to inspect the moss for large wildlife such as frogs or lizards before heating. Spanish moss can also be found in craft stores for use on wreathes and small indoor or silk flower arrangements.
Spanish moss has had a number of different names as various settlers and explorers have encountered the mystical plant. The French called it “Spanish beard” while the Spanish called the plant “French hair.” It has also been known as “graybeard” and “tree hair.” “Spanish moss” derived from the original “Spanish beard” is the name that has stuck and is most commonly used today.
There are a few legends behind Spanish moss and how it got its name. One legend, as told in a document from Beaufort county library, is about a Spanish explorer Gorez Goz. The story claims that Gorez Goz bought a native maiden. She was afraid of him and so she ran away. As he pursued her she climbed a tree and dove into the water. Goz followed her but became entangled in the tree and died there. But his “grey beard” continues to grow and spread throughout the trees.
Spanish moss can be cultivated in a green house. The tiny plants would be difficult to grow in a home because of the humidity and heat they require. Their ideal temperature is around 70 degrees. They will survive down to 22 degrees, but require at least 300 frost free days in a year. To start Spanish moss simply attach a plantling to a slab of bark. They are relatively slow growing and are not likely to flower in cultivation. Misting the plants once a week should provide enough moisture for the plants to grow.
If you have Spanish moss growing in trees on your property you may want to thin the moss if it becomes too thick. This will help prevent the tree from being deprived of needed sunshine and nutrients.
The world of bromeliads is vast and diverse. Spanish moss is just one example of a unique bromeliad. Bromeliads such as Spanish moss are incredibly important for biodiversity by creating habitats for all kinds of of species. To protect these species it is necessary to be informed about and respect the various plants, animals and insects that make up significant ecosystems in southern regions.
Adams, Dennis. “Spanish Moss: Its Nature History and Uses.” Beaufort County Library. <http://www.beaufortcountylibrary.org/htdocs-sirsi/spanish.htm>
Chistman, Steve. “Tillandsia usneoides” Floridata. <http://www.floridata.com/ref/t/till_usn.cfm>
“Growing Spanish Moss” Florida Spanish Moss. <http://floridaspanishmoss.com/growingmoss.html>
“Spanish Moss.” Wikipedia. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_moss>.
“Spanish-moss” Florida Forest Plants. <http://www.sfrc.ufl.edu/4h/spanish_moss/spanmoss.htm>
Photo credit: Ralph Daily via http://www.flickr.com/photos/ralphandjenny/5941090415/
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