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.
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 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!