Spanish moss

Spanish moss

Spanish moss, fibrous grayish-green epiphyte (Tillandsia usneoides) that hangs on trees of tropical America and the Southern states, also called Florida, southern, or long moss. It is not a true moss but a member of the pineapple family, and has inconspicuous flowers. It is used for stuffing furniture and as a packing material. Spanish moss is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Liliopsida, order Bromeliales, family Bromeliaceae.

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) closely resembles its namesake (Usnea, or beard lichen). However, Spanish moss is not biologically related to either mosses or lichens. Instead, it is a flowering plant in the family Bromeliaceae (the bromeliads) that grows hanging from tree branches in full sun or partial shade. Formerly this plant has been placed in the genera Anoplophytum, Caraguata, and Renealmia. It ranges from the southeastern United States (southern Virginia and eastern Maryland) to Argentina, growing wherever the climate is warm enough and has a relatively high average humidity.

The plant consists of a slender stem bearing alternate thin, curved or curly, heavily scaled leaves 2–6 cm long and 1 mm broad, that grow vegetatively in chain-like fashion (pendant) to form hanging structures 1–2 m in length, occasionally more. The plant has aerial roots and its flowers are tiny and inconspicuous. It propagates both by seed and vegetatively by fragments that blow on the wind and stick to tree limbs, or are carried by birds as nesting material.


Spanish moss is an epiphyte (a plant that lives upon other plants; from Greek "epi"=upon "phyte"=plant), which absorbs nutrients (especially calcium) and water from the air and rainfall. Spanish moss is colloquially known as "air plant". It can grow so thickly on tree limbs that it gives a somewhat "gothic" appearance to the landscape, and while it rarely kills the trees it lowers their growth rate by reducing the amount of light to a tree's own leaves. It also increases wind resistance, which can prove fatal to the host tree in a hurricane.

In the southern U.S., the plant seems to show a preference of growth on southern live oak and bald cypress because of these trees' high rates of foliar mineral leaching (Ca, Mg, K, and P) providing an abundant supply of nutrients to the plant, but it can colonize in other tree species such as sweetgum, crape-myrtle, other oaks, or even pine.

Spanish moss shelters a number of creatures, including rat snakes and three species of bats. One species of spider, Pelegrina tillandsiae (Salticidae), has been found only on Spanish moss.

Spanish moss in culture and folklore

Due to its propensity for growing in humid southern locales like Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama, the plant is often associated with Southern Gothic imagery.

In the southeastern United States, the following tale is told:

"As the story goes; there was once a traveler who came with his Spanish fiancée in the 1700s to start a plantation near the city of Charleston SC. She was a beautiful bride-to-be with long flowing raven hair. As the couple was walking over the plantation sight near the forest, and making plans for their future, they were suddenly attacked by a band of Cherokee who were not happy to share the land of their forefathers with strangers. As a final warning to stay away from the Cherokee nation, they cut off the long dark hair of the bride-to-be and threw it up in an old live oak tree. As the people came back day after day and week after week, they began to notice the hair had shriveled and turned grey and had begun spreading from tree to tree. Over the years the moss spread from South Carolina to Georgia and Florida. To this day, if one stands under a live oak tree, one will see the moss jump from tree to tree and defend itself with a large army of beetles."

In Hawaii, Spanish moss is occasionally called "Pele's hair" after Pele the Hawaiian goddess. The term "Pele's hair" usually refers to a type of filamentous volcanic glass.

Legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot penned a ballad entitled "Spanish Moss".

Human uses

At one time, some 5,000 tons of Spanish moss were harvested and used in the U.S. alone. The moss is sometimes bought for use in arts and crafts, or for beddings for flower gardens. The plant is commonly believed to be a habitat for chiggers, but only collects the mites after it has touched the ground. Spanish moss in its natural habitat, hanging from trees, does not harbor chiggers.

Spanish moss is also known to have been worn by the women of the Timucua Indian tribe.

Tillandsia usneoides as an entire plant has been used to treat type II diabetes (mellitus), heart disease, edema, and hemorrhoids.



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