Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) closely resembles its namesake . 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 lacks 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 , which absorbs nutrients (especially calcium) and water from the air and rainfall. Spanish moss is colloquially known as "air plant". It is not a biological parasite in the same sense as another epiphyte, mistletoe (it does not burrow into the tree and suck out nutrients)- however this is using a technical meaning of "parasite" of the biological community. By using a tree's structure it blocks out sunlight that would otherwise fall on the host tree's own leaves. The amount of sunlight it blocks is proportional to the amount it reduces tree growth depending on the tree type. On some trees only smaller or lower branches will die but the tree will grow at a slower rate.
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 a tree in hurricanes.
In the southern U.S., the plant seems to show a distinct preference of growth on southern live oak and bald cypress, 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.
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 fiancee 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 warriors 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,the introduction of Spanish Moss has made it so common that it has acquired the common name "Peles hair" after Pele the Hawaiian goddess.
Legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot penned a ballad entitled "Spanish Moss". [*]
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.
Spanish moss and ball moss
Mabberley, D.J. 1987. The Plant Book. A portable dictionary of the higher plants. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 706 p. ISBN 0-521-34060-8.
ITIS 42371 2002-08-25
A brief history of the Timucua people of Northern Florida [*]
Spanish Moss: Its History, Nature and Uses -- Beaufort County Library
Florida Forest Plants
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Spanish moss