Saturday, September 19, 2009

Spanish moss

Spanish moss gives much of the South its "gothic" appearance and we have a lot of it hanging from our trees in the yard - including the one that we built the new deck around, so we wouldn't have to cut it down. I thought the moss was a parasitic plant, but it is an epiphyte, so it lives on trees, but gathers its own nutrients and water. It does not kill its host, though it may shade the leaves from the sun, limiting photosynthesis; weigh down the branches, causing them to break; and create more wind resistance, making the tree more susceptible to hurricane damage. Here are some strange but true facts about Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides):
  • Originally referred to as "tree hair" or Spanish beard, and now also known as Florida moss, long moss, or graybeard, it is not actually a moss.
  • It was harvested by the ton for years as a stuffing material for mattresses, car seats, and furniture and kept them cooler and more comfortable because of its natural insulating properties. It was also used as a binder in plaster walls and in clay chimneys.
  • Today, Spanish moss is used by florists around the base of plants, by landscapers as a privacy screen, by builders as wall insulation, and by shippers as a packing material.
  • In the trees, the moss is home to birds, bats, rat snakes, and amphibians; on the ground it can harbor chiggers. There is a particular species of spider which has only been found in Spanish moss.
  • The moss will only grow on trees. Most often found on southern live oak or bald cypress, its masses can grow up to 20' in length.
  • In addition to the southeastern U.S. (from Texas to Florida), it grows in Central and South America, and can also be found in Hawaii, where it was introduced in the 1800s and used in leis.
  • The plant has been used to treat Type II diabetes, heart disease, edema, and hemorrhoids.
  • It can go dormant and withstand extremes of cold and drought for long periods.
  • Spanish moss is not propagated by seeds, but by fragments or festoons.
Finally, here is a poem about Spanish moss's origin:
Everything you wanted to know (or didn't think to ask) about Spanish moss!

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