by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist
Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides, which is also known as Graybeard or Long moss, is an epiphytic flowering plant that grows on larger trees in tropical and sob-tropical climates. It’s native to the southern United States, Central America, South America, Mexico and the Bahamas. It is commonly found on the southern Live Oak and Bald Cypress throughout swamps and savannas in the interior of Florida and ranges from Virginia south to Florida and west to Texas up as far north as Arkansas. On the islands, Spanish moss can be found on Green Buttonwood, Live Oak, Gumbo Limbos and a few other large trees in our island hammocks.
Epiphytic plants grow on the surface of other plants and derive their water from fog, dew, rain, mist and nutrition from the decomposition and release of nutrients from the host plant as well as nutrients that are released from the ground rooted host plant. They don’t affect the host plant negatively, as epiphytes use the host plant just for support. However, if a host plant becomes overwhelmed with epiphytes, the density can affect the growth of the host plant because ultimately it gets less sunlight. At the same time, the weight of the epiphytes can damage large trees especially in high wind and rain events.
On a more positive note, the host plant can benefit from the epiphyte by holding moisture in the canopy of the host plant, reducing the need for transpiration and reducing water needs of the host plant. This can be especially beneficial to the host plant in time of extended drought.
Spanish moss consists of slender stems that bear thin, curved or curly scaled leaves. They grow in a chain-like fashion forming hanging structures. Spanish moss propagates by seed and vegetatively by moss fragments that will blow in the wind and get stuck on neighboring trees. Birds, who often utilize the soft moss for nesting material, will also spread the establishment of Spanish moss.
In addition to being used by nesting birds, Spanish moss contributes to wildlife in many other ways. Several species of bats, who eat incredible amount of pesky insects, roost in clumps of Spanish moss. Several bird species have been documented to make nests directly in clumps of living moss and there is a species of spider that occurs only in Spanish moss.
In addition to wildlife use, Spanish moss has had a wide variety of human uses too! After proper preparation, which involves soaking and descaling of the moss, Indians wove the fibers from the moss into coarse cloth that was used for floor mats, horse blankets and bedding. The fibers were also woven into cords and used as ropes and the same fibers were blended into clays and used to improve pottery making. More recent uses include packing material for shipping, mattress and car seat stuffing in the early 1900’s and bedding for flower gardens. You’ll often also see Spanish moss incorporated into floral designs and used as a bedding to cover the soil in interior plantings, where its silver-gray color can be really appreciated.
Undoubtedly, Spanish moss is associated with the deep south. For me, having grown up in the Central Florida around majestic oaks, Spanish moss was always part of the landscape. It some cases I was celebrated. My first real golf course job was as Silver Oaks, the silver came from the abundant Spanish moss that adorned the oak trees throughout the course and community. Although not as abundant as it might be further north and in the interior of Florida, Spanish moss can certainly be found quickly on the islands and I hope you see this “different” plant in a new light or for the first time real soon!
3 things to remember about Spanish Moss
Spanish moss is not a moss! It’s a bromeliad, which means that it actually belongs to the same plant family as pineapples and succulent house plants.
Spanish moss isn’t from Spain. It was named “Spanish Beard” by French explorers because it was said to remind them of the Spanish conquistadors long gray beards.
Although Spanish moss grows on trees, it is not a parasite. A parasite onto the tree it grows on and takes nutrients from it. Spanish moss does neither. The plant thrives on rain, fog, mist and dew for its water needs and airborne dust, debris, decomposing host plant material and nutrients given off by the host plant for its nutritional needs.