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Thick strands of grey Spanish  moss hang from the branch of a tree
Photo by Dennis Adams

Spanish Moss: Its Nature, History
and Uses
by
Dennis Adams

Information Services
Coordinator


Spanish Moss: A Relative of the Pineapple

Exotica, an encyclopedia of tropical and near-tropical plants, defines Spanish moss as:

"Tillandsia usneoides (S. E. United States to Argentina and Chile) ... growing from trees as silvery-gray threadlike masses to 25 ft. long, densely covered by the gray scales which are a means of receiving and holding atmospheric moisture, and which help to enable the plant to dispense with roots; small axial flowers with petals 3/8 in. (1 cm) long, in changing colors yellowish-green to blue."

Thick strands of grey Spanish  moss hang from the branch of a tree
 

Tillandsia usneoides is not a true moss and is unrelated to the plants of the class Musci (or Bryopsida), to which the genus Sphagnum (mosses that form peat) belongs. Spanish Moss and the pineapple (Ananas comosus) belong to division Magnoliophyta , class Liliopsida, order Bromeliales, and to the plant family Bromeliacae . Within the one-family order of Bromeliales, all the species but one are native to tropical America and the West Indies: the exception is a species of the genus Pitcairnia, which is native to Africa. Other examples of bromeliads are the pinguin (Bromelia pinguin), a hedge plant with red flowers and sword-shaped leaves, and Puya raimondii (Peru and Bolivia), which can grow to a height of more than thirty feet. Some other species yield fiber for commercial use or are cultivated as ornamental plants.

The 500 species of genus Tillandsia comprise one of three branches within the family Bromeliacae. Plants of this genus have no spines on the edges of the leaves (in this sense, the leaves are "entire"). The trichomes (scales) on the leaves enable these plants to retain as much water as possible. A relative of Spanish Moss is Tillandsia setacea, which grows from South Carolina to northern South America. The stemless Tillandsia setacea has many threadlike leaves, and displays violet petals 3/4 of an inch long. Thick growth of Ball Moss (Tillandsia recurvata) is a common sight on Florida telephone wires (Spanish Moss will grow only on trees and other plants, however).

Like Spanish Moss, Tillandsia setacea and Tillandsia recurvata are epiphytes. Epiphytes grow on the surface of trees and other plants only for mechanical support. Unlike parasites, epiphytes do not draw nutrients from the host plant, but absorb water and food from the air directly though their stems and leaves. Through the process of photosynthesis, the chlorophyll in the epiphyte converts water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates. Other examples of epiphytes are certain tropical orchids and the resurrection fern.

Spanish Moss
(Tillandsia usneoides)

Photograph by Dennis Adams
 

Most bromeliads are perennial herbs and -- entirely unlike Spanish Moss -- are of upright growth. Some botanists have classified Spanish Moss separately, as Dendropogon usneoides (Greek dendron = "tree"; pogon = "beard"), because of the characteristics of the flower and seed.

For more information, read "The Story of Spanish Moss" (Online pamphlet) by Raymond J. Martinez. Home Publications, 1959.

The Range of Spanish Moss

Spanish Moss grows throughout the eastern half of South Carolina. A map in Manual of Vascular Flora of the Carolinas shows a distribution that ranges from the coast up to the Midlands of the state.

The overall range of Spanish moss is from coastal Virginia to Argentina. Hortica by Alfred Byrd Graf identifies it as a subtropical plant whose best climate area is horticultural Zone 9.

Origin of the Scientific Name,
Tillandsia usneoides

Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (Carl von LinnÚ, 1707-1778: father of the Binomial Name and Classification System) named the plant, and the translation of the species name under Linnaeus’s classification (usneoides) is "looks like moss". The lichen to which Linnaeus saw a resemblance is Usnea. [See close-up photograph of Spanish Moss].

The genus name, Tillandsia, derives from the name of another Swedish scientist, Elias Tillands. Tillands was a professor of medicine at the University of Abo, who catalogued the plants around that town in 1673.

Origin of the Common Name,
"Spanish Moss"

Native Americans called the plant "tree hair", which name the French explorers turned to "Barbe espagnole" -- "Spanish Beard" -- to insult their bitter rivals in the New World. The Spanish retorted with "Cabello francÚs" ("French hair").

"Spanish Moss", a milder variation of the French taunt, has survived. Another common name is "Graybeard".

Legends of Spanish Moss

One legend that does not flatter the Spanish explorers is the story of Gorez Goz:

  • Gorez Goz was a bearded brute who bought a beautiful Indian maiden for a yard of braid and a mere bar of soap. The mere sight of the Spaniard so frightened the girl that she ran away from him. Gorez Goz chased right behind her, until at last he climbed up after her to the top of a tree. The maiden dove into the water and escaped, but Gorez Goz's beard got hopelessly entangled in the tree's branches. There he died, but we can still see his "greybeard" on trees throughout the Lowcountry -- as the Spanish moss out on the limbs.

On the Gulf Coast (near Mobile, Alabama) Rufus Joseph Tillman used to tell a more romantic version of the story to his great-granddaughter, Sherry Hicks:

  • A Spanish soldier fell in love at first sight with an Indian chief's favorite daughter. Though the chieftain forbade the couple to see each other, the Spaniard was too lovestruck to stop meeting the maiden in secret. The father found them out and ordered his braves to tie the Spaniard high up in the top of an ancient oak tree. The Spaniard had only to disavow his love to be freed, but he steadfastly refused. Guards were posted to keep anyone -- the chief's daughter above all -- from giving food or water to the poor Spaniard.
  • The Spaniard grew weaker and weaker, but he still would not renounce his love for the girl. Near the end, the Chief tried to persuade him once more to stay away from his daughter. The Spaniard answered that not only would he refuse to disavow his love, but that his love would continue to grow even after death. When at last the Spaniard died, the chief kept the body tied up in the tree as a warning to any other would-be suitors.
  • Before long, the Indians began to notice that the Spaniard's beard continued to grow. The Indian maiden refused ever to take a husband -- unless the Spaniard's beard died and vanished from the tree. As the years went by, the beard only grew stronger and longer, covering trees far from the Indian maiden's village. Legend says that when the Spanish Moss is gone, the Spaniard's love will have finally died with it.

(Family tradition has it that Mr. Tillman's great-grandfather, James Tillman, was born in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1776, so Ms. Hicks wondered if these ties could account for the similarity between these legends.)

Spanish Moss in Nature

The collective fragrance of the tiny Spanish Moss flowers is most noticeable in the Lowcountry night air, from April to July. After fertilization, the blossoms produce pods bearing seeds that become airborne when released, and which stick fast to tree branches. A sail-like structure on each seed catches the seed up in the currents of air. The seeds lodge in the cracks of rough-barked live oaks, where a seedling can fasten temporary roots to keep it in place.

A cluster of small stems grows after about two weeks, and these stems will extract most of the plant’s nutrients from its surroundings. Though the plant will continue to absorb some nutrients from matter that has decayed on the tree, Spanish Moss is an epiphyte, like Tillandsia setacea, described above. The plant’s external scales may also absorb minerals from tree leaves (in the warmer areas where the moss grows, this outer layer is thinner, and the fiber is longer, heavier and stronger). Spanish Moss is not a parasite (mistletoe, on the other hand, is not an epiphyte, but a true parasite that draws nutrients from its host tree). A host tree may suffer if a particularly thick growth of moss blocks out sunlight, but Spanish Moss normally does no harm to the trees.  
Closeup of the wiry gray moss
Spanish moss (gray and green filaments)
entangled in a brown twig.

Photograph by Dennis Adams
(August 15, 2002)

     

Spanish moss overwhelming a small tree

A small tree overgrown with Spanish moss.
Photograph by Dennis Adams
(March 29, 2004)

 

When wet, the plant has a greenish color. Spanish Moss can absorb water up to ten times its dry weight and will often crack the branch on which it has grown after a particularly heavy rainfall. Spanish Moss, wrote botanist L. H. Bailey, "in moist regions ... gives a most weird aspect to the forests."

The moss will grow only on trees, and not on fences, telephone poles, buildings or even on vines; whatever clumps of Spanish Moss found on these surfaces have fallen there or have been blown away from limbs by the wind.

A Shelter for Wildlife

Spanish Moss, in its turn, shelters a number of creatures, including chiggers, rat snakes and three species of bats (which often fall prey to the snakes). Birds -- like the prothonotary warblers and chickadees -- also use Spanish Moss to build or conceal their nests, and the parula warbler makes its nest in the actual hanging clumps of the moss. Yellow-throated warblers make nests of Spanish moss and pine needles, both abundant materials in the Sea Islands. Squirrels, owls, egrets and mockingbirds also use Spanish Moss for nest bedding.

One species of spider, Pelegrina tillandsiae , makes Spanish Moss its sole habitat. These spiders are found from North Carolina south to Florida and west to Texas. Yellow lineate and dark abdominal markings distinguish this species.

John O. Whitaker, Jr. , a mammalogist at the Department of Life Sciences, Indiana State University, has worked on Cumberland Island, Georgia with scientists at the Cumberland Island Museum. Whittaker and his colleagues "collected some Spanish moss from the tree and from the ground and put it through a Berlese funnel, primarily because Carol Ruckdeschel at the museum had heard that there were supposed to be chiggers in Spanish moss."

Whittaker's interest in Spanish moss fauna comes partially from his studies of "ectoparasites, particularly mites, and in food habits of small mammals ..."

He has "not identified most of the materials to species yet. The most interesting find so far was was several individuals of a tiny millipede (it is a hairy critter and looks more like a lepidopteran larvae). It is Polyxenus fasciculatus Polyxenidae, and is in a separate suborder Pselaphognatha. It can not roll itself together, and is 'not common and occurs under bark and stones.'"

"A fair number of mites were present (mostly oribatids), but no chiggers." Some spiders were present, but Whittaker has not attempted to identify them."

The following is a table of preliminary, unpublished data from the Cumberland Island research (used with permission):

Organisms from Spanish Moss on Cumberland Island, GA
(19 May, 2002)

Thysanoptera
From Tree
Freshly Fallen
Long on Ground
Rest from Tree
 
10
 
37
 
0
 
13
Acarina: mites
11
0
106
88
Aranaea
4
2
2
30
Collembola
2
0
0
6
Hymenoptera
3
2
0
3
Diplopoda*
1
7
0
8
Elaterid larvae
1
0
0
0
Coccidae
5
0
0
6
Unid. #1
1
0
0
0
Pseudoscorpion
0
0
0
1
Psocoptera
1
7
0
61
Gryllidae
0
0
0
1
Pschodidae?
0
0
0
1
Thysanoptera #2
0
7
0
0
Coleoptera (small)
0
3
0
0
Cicadellidae
0
0
0
1
.
* Tiny millipede, Suborder Pselaphognatha, Famil Polyxenidae; Polyxenus fasciculatus
.

The Many Uses of Spanish Moss

Human inhabitants of the Sea Islands have made good use of Spanish Moss as well. Nicholas Carteret, who arrived at Sewee on the frigate Carolina in 1670, described three women of the Sewee tribe as wearing "new roabs of new Mosse, which they are never beholding to the taylor to trim up, with plenty of beads of divers collours about their necks."

The first Europeans to settle here attempted to use Spanish Moss as fodder for livestock. Although Spanish Moss can be stored like hay for the winter months, it has very little food value and is best used as bulk feed. According to Todd Ballantine, in Tideland Treasures, "deer, wild turkey and horses eat this epiphyte".

Colonists also mixed moss and mud together to caulk their cabins (moss recovered from 150 year-old mud mortar had not greatly deteriorated). Dried moss also made good kindling for the home fires once the cabins were built. Because it retains moisture so well, the plant has always made an excellent mulch for Sea Island gardens. Commercial uses of processed Spanish Moss have included packing material, saddle blankets, bridles, braids, and even filament to repair fishermen’s nets.

 
Spanish moss draping a tree

Pickers harvested moss from the trees with long poles during the winter, when the plant was less subject to damage by handling. A large tree would yield as much as a ton of moss, but the weight
 
Spanish moss drapes a tree
in front of a Victorian house
on Craven St., Beaufort, SC
(Photograph by Dennis Adams)

might be reduced by up to 80% after waste material had been removed for the curing process. The harvest then hung for a number of months to cure in a "moss yard" (an open area where the moss was placed on strung wires). Other methods of curing included piling of moss in heaps of from five to ten feet high, soaking in water, and burying in pits. The color of the filaments would range from glossy black to light brown, depending on how much humus was present in the soil on which the curing took place.

These curing processes loosened the gray outer scales of the moss to prepare it for commercial ginning. According to Raymond J. Martinez, ginning involved placing the moss first on a belt:

"... which carries it to a toothed cylinder revolving within a toothed concave, which is partly enclosed in a drum. Fans blow out the dirt, the moss is loosened up and the strands are straightened. The moss is then baled up and made ready for shipment. A bale of moss weighs from 125 to 150 pounds."

Over 10,000 tons (worth $2.5 million dollars) of cured Spanish Moss was ginned in 1939. When drought ruined crops in 1930, Louisiana farmers were able to gather enough Spanish Moss "to make ends meet". At the present time (as late as 1996), gatherers still bring moss to markets in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, mainly for the arts-and-crafts trade. Although rarely cultivated, Spanish Moss may be found in greenhouses, hung on the interior beams (where it must be renewed often).

The plant has a black filament at its core which, stripped of its gray covering at the gins, became stuffing for automobile cushions and mattresses. Because cool air could freely permeate the filaments, moss mattresses were especially prized during hot and humid Lowcountry summers (despite the need to place heavy paper and a blanket over the moss mattresses for insulation during the winter). The moss "bark" that had been stripped from the horsehair-like threads was sold as mulch, and even the tree bark, twigs, leaves, soil and defective moss filaments removed from cured moss went for sale as mulching material. After his visit to the South Carolina Lowcountry in 1825, German Duke Karl Bernhard wrote that local merchants were exporting the "Spanish beard" to mattress makers in Europe. Manufacturers were stuffing mattresses with American Spanish Moss in Liverpool in the 1840s. South Carolina never had a large-scale moss industry, however, (the only commercial mills of this century operated in Florida and Louisiana), and ginning was profitable only from 1900 until 1975, when synthetic fibers eliminated the need for natural filaments.

Todd Ballantine reported that "Henry Ford stuffed seats in his 1st Model Ts with this treeline upholstery". Mr. Ballantine also notes that "herbalists use it as tea to relieve rheumatism, abcesses and birth pains."

In the past, doctors prescribed medicines extracted from Spanish moss to treat diabetes. Researchers at Northeast Louisiana University were, in 1998, exploring uses of Tillandsia unsneoides to control blood glucose levels.

Present-day Beaufortonians often place Spanish Moss in their microwave ovens for a brief setting to "cure" it when they wish to use it for handicrafts, indoor mulch or to pack fragile items. Others boil and then dry the moss to treat it. It is always a good idea to inspect the moss for larger creatures (like frogs, lizards and all visible spiders and insects) before taking any Spanish moss home.

Modern commercial processors carefully clean, dry and heat all moss to kill insects.

Spanish moss even serves to fill potholes and to dam up puddles in driveways to private residences.

Spanish Moss:A Survivor

Spanish Moss, so sensitive to the air that sustains it, has provided a "litmus test" of pollution. The United States Geological Survey collected samples of the moss along major highways in South Carolina. Samples from I-95 and other interstates showed high concentrations of lead from automobile exhaust fumes, while moss from Highway 17 (south of Charleston) contained significant levels of copper, sodium, nickel and manganese. Spanish Moss will not grow directly over chimney smoke. When in the early 1970s Spanish Moss began dying out in this area, pollution was not to blame, however. An incurable mold infestation killed much of the moss, but enough plants resisted the epidemic that a strain of Tillandsia usneoides immune to the mold soon thrived, draping all the Lowcountry as richly as before.

Sources:

  • Ballantine, Todd. "Spanish Moss" in Tideland Treasures. University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

  • "Bromeliales" in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: Micropaedia, volume 2. 15th edition (1997).

  • The Columbia Encyclopedia, Edition 5, 1993.

  • "Draped in History" (Staff article) in The Beaufort Gazette of November 10, 1996.

  • Exotica Series 3: Pictorial Cyclopedia of Exotic Plants from Tropical and Near-tropic Regions by Alfred Byrd Graf. 7th edition. Roehrs Company, 1974.

  • Graf, Alfred Byrd. Hortica: Color Cyclopedia of Garden Flora in All Climates -- Worldwide -- and Exotic Plants Indoors. Roehrs Co., 1992.

  • Hicks, Sherry. E-mail correspondence of April 6 and 13, 1999.

  • Hortus Third: A Concise Dictionary of Plants Cultivated in the United States and Canada, compiled by the Staff of the Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium. Macmillan, 1976.

  • "Legend of the Spanish Moss", postcard published by Photo Arts, Winnsboro, SC.

  • Manual of Vascular Flora of the Carolinas by Albert E. Radford et al. University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

  • Red Carolinians by Chapman J. Milling. University of North Carolina Press, 1940.

  • The Saw Palmetto Trading Company (World Wide Web site), http://www.sawpalmetto.com/spanishmoss.

  • "Spanish Moss: The Old Spaniard’s Beard" by Gerhard Spieler. The Beaufort Gazette of August 30, 1973.

  • Spanish Moss and Ball Moss by Nancy P. Arny of the University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service Institute of Food and Agricultural Services (World Wide Web Site), http://www.sfrc.ufl.edu/Extension/scfor52.htm .

  • The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture by L. H. Bailey. Macmillan, 1942.

  • "The Story of Spanish Moss" (Pamphlet) by Raymond J. Martinez. Home Publications, 1959.

  • "Symbol of the South: Spanish Moss is Neither" by Lynne Langley. Post and Courier (Charleston , S. C.) of May 16, 1996.

Special thanks to James G. Sharpe for his careful review of this page.

 
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