Exotica, an encyclopedia of tropical and near-tropical plants, defines Spanish moss as:
"Tillandsia usneoides (S. E. United States to Argentina and Chile) ... growing from trees as silvery-gray threadlike masses to 25 ft. long, densely covered by the gray scales which are a means of receiving and holding atmospheric moisture, and which help to enable the plant to dispense with roots; small axial flowers with petals 3/8 in. (1 cm) long, in changing colors yellowish-green to blue."
Most bromeliads are perennial herbs and -- entirely unlike Spanish Moss -- are of upright growth. Some botanists have classified Spanish Moss separately, as Dendropogon usneoides (Greek dendron = "tree"; pogon = "beard"), because of the characteristics of the flower and seed.
For more information, read "The Story of Spanish Moss" (Online pamphlet) by Raymond J. Martinez. Home Publications, 1959.
Spanish Moss grows throughout the eastern half of South Carolina. A map in Manual of Vascular Flora of the Carolinas shows a distribution that ranges from the coast up to the Midlands of the state.
The overall range of Spanish moss is from coastal Virginia to Argentina. Hortica by Alfred Byrd Graf identifies it as a subtropical plant whose best climate area is horticultural Zone 9.
Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (Carl von LinnÚ, 1707-1778: father of the Binomial Name and Classification System) named the plant, and the translation of the species name under Linnaeuss classification (usneoides) is "looks like moss". The lichen to which Linnaeus saw a resemblance is Usnea. [See close-up photograph of Spanish Moss].
The genus name, Tillandsia, derives from the name of another Swedish scientist, Elias Tillands. Tillands was a professor of medicine at the University of Abo, who catalogued the plants around that town in 1673.
Native Americans called the plant "tree hair", which name the French explorers turned to "Barbe espagnole" -- "Spanish Beard" -- to insult their bitter rivals in the New World. The Spanish retorted with "Cabello francÚs" ("French hair").
"Spanish Moss", a milder variation of the French taunt, has survived. Another common name is "Graybeard".
One legend that does not flatter the Spanish explorers is the story of Gorez Goz:
On the Gulf Coast (near Mobile, Alabama) Rufus Joseph Tillman used to tell a more romantic version of the story to his great-granddaughter, Sherry Hicks:
(Family tradition has it that Mr. Tillman's great-grandfather, James Tillman, was born in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1776, so Ms. Hicks wondered if these ties could account for the similarity between these legends.)
The collective fragrance of the tiny Spanish Moss flowers is most noticeable in the Lowcountry night air, from April to July. After fertilization, the blossoms produce pods bearing seeds that become airborne when released, and which stick fast to tree branches. A sail-like structure on each seed catches the seed up in the currents of air. The seeds lodge in the cracks of rough-barked live oaks, where a seedling can fasten temporary roots to keep it in place.
Spanish Moss, in its turn, shelters a number of creatures, including chiggers, rat snakes and three species of bats (which often fall prey to the snakes). Birds -- like the prothonotary warblers and chickadees -- also use Spanish Moss to build or conceal their nests, and the parula warbler makes its nest in the actual hanging clumps of the moss. Yellow-throated warblers make nests of Spanish moss and pine needles, both abundant materials in the Sea Islands. Squirrels, owls, egrets and mockingbirds also use Spanish Moss for nest bedding.
One species of spider, Pelegrina tillandsiae , makes Spanish Moss its sole habitat. These spiders are found from North Carolina south to Florida and west to Texas. Yellow lineate and dark abdominal markings distinguish this species.
John O. Whitaker, Jr. , a mammalogist at the Department of Life Sciences, Indiana State University, has worked on Cumberland Island, Georgia with scientists at the Cumberland Island Museum. Whittaker and his colleagues "collected some Spanish moss from the tree and from the ground and put it through a Berlese funnel, primarily because Carol Ruckdeschel at the museum had heard that there were supposed to be chiggers in Spanish moss."
interest in Spanish moss fauna comes partially from his studies of
"ectoparasites, particularly mites, and in food habits of small
He has "not
identified most of the materials to species yet. The most interesting
find so far was was several individuals of a tiny millipede (it is
a hairy critter and looks more like a lepidopteran larvae). It is
Polyxenus fasciculatus Polyxenidae, and is in a separate suborder
Pselaphognatha. It can not roll itself together, and is 'not common
and occurs under bark and stones.'"
"A fair number of mites were present (mostly oribatids), but no chiggers." Some spiders were present, but Whittaker has not attempted to identify them."
is a table of preliminary, unpublished data from the Cumberland Island
research (used with permission):
might be reduced by up to 80% after waste material had been removed for the curing process. The harvest then hung for a number of months to cure in a "moss yard" (an open area where the moss was placed on strung wires). Other methods of curing included piling of moss in heaps of from five to ten feet high, soaking in water, and burying in pits. The color of the filaments would range from glossy black to light brown, depending on how much humus was present in the soil on which the curing took place.
These curing processes loosened the gray outer scales of the moss to prepare it for commercial ginning. According to Raymond J. Martinez, ginning involved placing the moss first on a belt:
"... which carries it to a toothed cylinder revolving within a toothed concave, which is partly enclosed in a drum. Fans blow out the dirt, the moss is loosened up and the strands are straightened. The moss is then baled up and made ready for shipment. A bale of moss weighs from 125 to 150 pounds."
Over 10,000 tons (worth $2.5 million dollars) of cured Spanish Moss was ginned in 1939. When drought ruined crops in 1930, Louisiana farmers were able to gather enough Spanish Moss "to make ends meet". At the present time (as late as 1996), gatherers still bring moss to markets in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, mainly for the arts-and-crafts trade. Although rarely cultivated, Spanish Moss may be found in greenhouses, hung on the interior beams (where it must be renewed often).
The plant has a black filament at its core which, stripped of its gray covering at the gins, became stuffing for automobile cushions and mattresses. Because cool air could freely permeate the filaments, moss mattresses were especially prized during hot and humid Lowcountry summers (despite the need to place heavy paper and a blanket over the moss mattresses for insulation during the winter). The moss "bark" that had been stripped from the horsehair-like threads was sold as mulch, and even the tree bark, twigs, leaves, soil and defective moss filaments removed from cured moss went for sale as mulching material. After his visit to the South Carolina Lowcountry in 1825, German Duke Karl Bernhard wrote that local merchants were exporting the "Spanish beard" to mattress makers in Europe. Manufacturers were stuffing mattresses with American Spanish Moss in Liverpool in the 1840s. South Carolina never had a large-scale moss industry, however, (the only commercial mills of this century operated in Florida and Louisiana), and ginning was profitable only from 1900 until 1975, when synthetic fibers eliminated the need for natural filaments.
Todd Ballantine reported that "Henry Ford stuffed seats in his 1st Model Ts with this treeline upholstery". Mr. Ballantine also notes that "herbalists use it as tea to relieve rheumatism, abcesses and birth pains."
In the past, doctors prescribed medicines extracted from Spanish moss to treat diabetes. Researchers at Northeast Louisiana University were, in 1998, exploring uses of Tillandsia unsneoides to control blood glucose levels.
Present-day Beaufortonians often place Spanish Moss in their microwave ovens for a brief setting to "cure" it when they wish to use it for handicrafts, indoor mulch or to pack fragile items. Others boil and then dry the moss to treat it. It is always a good idea to inspect the moss for larger creatures (like frogs, lizards and all visible spiders and insects) before taking any Spanish moss home.
Modern commercial processors carefully clean, dry and heat all moss to kill insects.
Spanish moss even serves to fill potholes and to dam up puddles in driveways to private residences.
Spanish Moss, so sensitive to the air that sustains it, has provided a "litmus test" of pollution. The United States Geological Survey collected samples of the moss along major highways in South Carolina. Samples from I-95 and other interstates showed high concentrations of lead from automobile exhaust fumes, while moss from Highway 17 (south of Charleston) contained significant levels of copper, sodium, nickel and manganese. Spanish Moss will not grow directly over chimney smoke. When in the early 1970s Spanish Moss began dying out in this area, pollution was not to blame, however. An incurable mold infestation killed much of the moss, but enough plants resisted the epidemic that a strain of Tillandsia usneoides immune to the mold soon thrived, draping all the Lowcountry as richly as before.
thanks to James G. Sharpe
for his careful review of this page.