Sunday, May 20, 2018

There's nothing Spanish or mossy about Spanish moss

Spanish moss adds to the South's character and elegance. 

Not Moss

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is a flowering plant in the pineapple family (Bromeliaceae), so it's not a moss at all. (Mosses are non-vascular, non-flowering, spore-producing plants.) It's an epiphyte or air plant found in damp areas near waterways or swamps because it absorbs its moisture and nutrients from the air, so while it hangs from trees, it's not a parasite like mistletoe and does not rob the host tree of water or nutrients.

Spanish moss is covered with trichomes (scales or flaps) on its surface, which are what allows this air plant to absorb moisture from the air and to catch the dust particles, which are needed for nutrients. the trichomes also slow down transpiration so it doesn't dry out too quickly.

It's a vascular plant, which means that it has vessel cells that carry water throughout the plant. Once the vessel cells (also known as xylem) form they die and become tough and wiry, which is what holds these long plants together. While strands of Spanish moss can be yards long, in reality, such a festoon usually consists of many individual plants that are only about 10 inches long that are tangled together.

Spanish moss flower

Tiny flowers

People probably don't think of Spanish moss as a flowering plant because the pale yellow-green to red flowers are so small as to be nearly imperceptible. It flowers in the summer when individual flowers last only a few days and emit a subtle fragrance, which attracts a variety of insect pollinators.

The fruits are tiny capsules that release the seeds the following winter. Seed dispersal is aided by delicate hairs, almost an inch long, which act as kites. These hairs are covered with tiny barbs, which can anchor in the cracks of rough bark. Seedlings have root-like holdfasts, but they never penetrate the host tree and don't last long because mature plants have no roots at all.

Vegetative reproduction is much more common than propagation by seeds. Small broken plant fragments are scattered by wind, birds, and other animals. They can also float on water. They grow into new plants if they land on appropriate sites. The large natural range of Spanish moss, the largest native range of any of the members of the pineapple family, maybe be because of powerful hurricane winds which have transferred pieces of it great distances and because of its ability to grow to full size from just a small piece.

Unless you look very closely, you'll not notice the tiny Spanish moss flowers. Also notice the fuzzy layer, which allows it to absorb all that moisture. 

Habitat values

Insects, spiders, and mites (including chiggers) live in the Spanish moss. Small birds such as warblers make their nests in the hanging Spanish moss, while other bigger birds harvest pieces of Spanish moss to line their nests.

Not Spanish

It's native to this hemisphere in mostly coastal regions from southern Maryland south to South America, so it's not Spanish. The native Americans called it itla-okla or tree hair and when they communicated this to the early French explorers, who were in a type of competition with the Spanish explorers, named it barbe Espagnol or Spaniard's beard. The Spanish explorers then called it cabello Francés or French hair. The French name was modified to Spanish moss and that stuck in our lexicon.
Spanish moss is thick in this blooming red maple.
It doesn't usually hurt its host plants,
but it can get heavy when wet.


Native Americans wove it into their clothing and used it to make torches. Early European settlers used it as a binding material in the mortar mix to build their log cabins and also used it for fabric by drying it out and spinning the wiry xylem cells into coarse yarns.

Starting in the late 1800s until 1930 or so, Spanish moss was commercially ginned to remove its outer skin for a wide variety of uses, including stuffing material for mattresses and furniture. The upholstery in the Model T Fords and other cars were stuffed with Spanish moss. Later car makers kept using it. In 1927, Louisiana alone sold 1200 carloads of Spanish moss—worth around fifty million of today's dollars.

It's said that Spanish moss mattresses were popular in the South because they absorbed much more water than other stuffing materials. The great fire in Jacksonville in 1901 was started by a spark igniting a pile of drying Spanish moss. More than 2,000 building were destroyed. The city spent the next decade rebuilding and "Prairie School" architect Henry John Klutho was brought in to design many of the city's new buildings, which give Jacksonville its distinct style today. Click the link for more information and photos of the 1901 Jacksonville fire.

Today there is still a commercial market for Spanish moss mostly for the craft and floral industries. And finally, if there's Spanish moss available to you, it's a great mulching material for your general landscape at the edges of beds or tree groves. I would probably not recommend it for your edible beds, though, because it absorbs so much moisture that it might be detrimental to your crops during dry spells.

Spanish moss: The South's draperies.
I hope you have some trees hosting some Spanish moss near you, so that you can enjoy that casual feeling of being in The South.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

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