571 Tillandsia usneoidesCommon Names: Spanish moss, Dendropogon usneoides (syn.) Family: Bromeliaceae (bromeliad or pineapple Family)
Spanish moss is gray when dry and light green when wet, and it hangs from tree branches in wind blown festoons that may reach 20 ft (6 m) or more in length. The stems and leaves are slender and curly, and covered with tiny silvery-gray scales that catch water and nutrients (in dust particles) from the air. Spanish moss has no roots. The flowers are inconspicuous, pale green or blue, and fragrant at night. Spanish moss is not related to mosses at all, but is in fact closely related to the pineapple and other bromeliads or "air plants."
Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides, hangs from tree limbs, especially live oak and cypress, (and sometimes even fences and telephone wires) throughout the southeastern U.S. Coastal Plain from Virginia to Texas. It also occurs in the West Indies and Central and South America as far south as Argentina.
CultureLight: Full sunlight to partial shade. Moisture: Spanish moss has no roots and gets all the water it needs from the rain. During dry periods, it becomes dormant and waits it out, to resurrect itself when the rain returns. Hardiness: USDA Zones 8 - 11. Propagation: Spanish moss produces tiny seeds that sail on the wind and stick fast to tree branches. Birds and the wind carry fragments of the plant to new locations, probably the commonest means of propagation.
Spanish moss is not a parasite. That is, it does not take nutrients or water from the host tree on which it lives. However, occasionally, Spanish moss can become so thick that it shades the leaves of its host, or, when heavy with rainwater, breaks a branch. Although a tree might be weakened, it would not likely be killed by Spanish moss. However, it is considered a pest in pecan orchards.
Spanish moss makes a great mulch if you're lucky enough to garden within its range. It is often used in decorative floral arrangements and handicrafts. I sent my mother in upstate New York some home grown kumquats packed in Spanish moss and she was more excited about the packing material than my North Florida citrus! Spanish moss is sometimes hung on fences or wires to create privacy screens.
The suffix, "-oides" on many scientific names means "similar to", and in this case refers to the similar looking, but unrelated, lichen, Usnea, or old man's beard, which also is an epiphyte on tree limbs.
For more than two centuries Spanish moss was harvested commercially, and tons of it were shipped to Detroit for use in automobile seats and to other cities in America and Europe for mattress and furniture stuffing. It was said to make the coolest mattresses, an important consideration in the days before air conditioning. Until the 1960's Spanish moss was still harvested by moss pickers wielding long poles, cured in moss yards to remove the outer gray "bark", ginned at commercial moss gins, and then baled for shipment. In 1939, more than 10,000 tons of Spanish moss was ginned in Florida and Louisiana.
In spring and summer look closely at Spanish moss on live oak or cypress limbs and you may see what looks like a tennis ball woven into the hanging streamer. Yellow-throated warblers and northern parulas weave their nests right in the Spanish moss, sometimes no more than 6 ft (1.8 m) off the ground. Many other kinds of birds use pieces of Spanish moss for nesting material. Several species of bats roost in Spanish moss and there is one species of spider that occurs nowhere but in Spanish moss.
Spanish moss is susceptible to air pollution and has disappeared from polluted areas in some cities. It does not grow near chimneys or where smoke is frequent. In the early 1970's Spanish moss declined dramatically in much of its range due to a parasitic mold. Since then it has recovered.
Don't use Spanish moss for bedding or packing without first treating it to kill tiny pests (especially red bugs or chiggers) that may be lurking within. Microwaving works well, as does heating or boiling in water. (Remove bats, lizards and snakes before microwaving.)
Steve Christman 09/25/99; updated 11/20/99, 03/01/03, 10/26/03, 6/3/06, 7/29/16