Spanish moss, which isn’t Spanish and isn’t a moss or lichen, belongs to the bromeliad family. Florida’s climate (high heat and humidity) is a perfect environment for the ancient air plant (epiphyte). Attaching itself to a host plant, usually a cypress or live oak, it absorbs moisture and nutrients through the scales on the tubular spikes of the plant. They are called “Tillandsias”, seen in close-up in this photo at wikipedia.
Graceful yet eerie, Spanish moss was worn by Native American women, who wove it into a sort of fabric. Pioneers later stuffed their mattresses with it. Used as packing material for oranges being shipped north in the 1920s and to stuff car seats, it was also used to fill Voodoo dolls. Today, it is mostly found in terrariums or included as part of arts & crafts projects.
Killer Spanish Moss?
Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) can injure the host tree, even though it is not a parasite. Beautiful in that graceful, aging way seen so often in the South, it sometimes slowly weakens its host by blocking sunlight, preventing photosynthesis. This can be costly to citrus growers who need full sunlight for maximum fruit.
While it poses no danger to humans, those with allergies to pollen may react when the plant blooms. The other human irritant to come from Spanish moss is exposure to chiggers, so tiny they are almost invisible to the naked eye. Some people claim the insect burrows under the skin, others say they bite, but are easily washed off, and still others claim that chiggers do not live in Spanish moss at all. The problem of insects most definitely brought an early end to the use of Spanish moss as packing material to protect precious fruit.
How Did Spanish Moss Get Its Name?
Known by many names, including “Grandfather’s Graybeard” and “Spanish Beard”, there are varying legends attributed to the name. One story is that of hair braids of a deceased Native American woman hung on a branch by a grieving husband, Another story attributes the name to a Spanish explorer who, intent of rape, pursued a Native American woman up a tree, only to get his bread caught in the branches. The entanglement eventually ended up hanging him or breaking his neck, depending on which version is being offered. When his men found him, they had to cut his beard off in order to retrieve the body. The beard was left behind and serves as a reminder that women are to be treated kindly.
Regardless of which version one prefers, the gently swaying Spanish moss greets visitors and residents alike.