Untangling Spanish Moss

At home in the Upstate I’ve been toying with a few of the newly fashionable air plants such as Tillandsia xerographica, which I’m growing as a houseplant on a piece of driftwood. So this week while I’ve been at the beach, I’ve taken a closer look at a near kin, Tillandsia usneoides, a native epiphyte which grows in the Southeastern coastal strip that extends from Tidewater Virginia to Florida and west to Texas.

South Carolina's native epiphyte, Tillandsia usneoides.

South Carolina’s native epiphyte, Tillandsia usneoides.

Native Americans called the plant “tree hair.” Early French explorers turned the name into a taunt at their rivals, dubbing it “barbe espagnole,” or Spanish beard. Today the plant is commonly known as Spanish moss or, occasionally, graybeard.

Like other epiphytes, Spanish moss absorbs water and nutrients from air and rainfall. Its slender, curly stems grow vegetatively in masses that hang from tree branches in full to part sun. The plant has a preference for trees that leach minerals from their leaves, such as Southern live oak (Quercus virginiana), but will also grow on less hospitable plants and structures.

If you look closely, you can see miniscule scales cover the curvy stems. Rather than working as a protective covering, they actually catch and hold water. And though the plant seems very fragile, it provides shelter for many animals, including snakes and at least three species of bats. Locals know the plant is also full of chiggers.

Spanish moss is not as fragile as it looks.

Spanish moss is not as fragile as it looks.

Spanish moss was once used for stuffing furniture and automobile seats, as well as for insulation and packing material. Though man-made materials now fill these roles, Spanish moss still serves an important purpose–it’s the only suitable filling for an authentic Voodoo doll!

A South Carolina Lowcountry-style beach house with oaks cloaked in Spanish moss.

A South Carolina Lowcountry-style beach house with oaks cloaked in Spanish moss.

14 thoughts on “Untangling Spanish Moss

    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Norman–Folks love to tell stories about out-of-towners who collect the moss and stow it in their car trunk and then find themselves with a car full of chiggers on the long drive home.

  1. Joyce Moore

    When I was a child in Florida, it was scary at night in the wind. You could buy a mattress stuffed with it and yes, it does harbor chiggers and can smother and harm trees over time

  2. Norman Smith

    I got in some chiggers in Mississippi somewhere….stepped outta the car to take photo, or nature was calling, (don’t remember) but I scratched for days afterward. They say by the time they start itching, they have already dropped off.

  3. Gloria Ballard

    Such an intriguing plant, and I’m glad to know more about — in spite of the fact that, from now on, whenever I see Spanish moss, I’ll start to itch.

    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Chloris–Norman has provided an excellent link, but the short answer is they are tiny bug-like things that bite and cause you to itch for days on end. I got them once picking wild blueberries and thought I would die.

      1. Julie Smith

        My Dad told me to mix rubbing alcohol with sand and rub on your chigger bites so the buggers would get drunk and throw rocks at each other and thus kill each other.

  4. Christina

    I remember seeing this growing in the trees in California when we were there thanksfor a holiday, I found it fascinating. Thanks for bringing back some very happy memories.


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