When I was a kid, we lived out in the country, and one of my favorite things to do was roam around the woods next to our house. One of my earliest memories is looking up at the big live oak trees draped with Spanish moss.
To Floridians (and people who live in other parts of the Southeastern U.S.), oak trees swathed in Spanish moss is a familiar sight. Some people might think the wispy gray plant is ugly or scary, but to me, it looks like “home.”
You might not think much of Spanish moss, but its properties and history are pretty interesting.
The plant (yes, it is a plant) itself is misunderstood. Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is not actually a moss. It’s an epiphyte, or an “air plant,” which collects water and nutrients from rainfall and the air (which is why you’ll find it in areas of high humidity). Check out this magnified photo of a fragment of Spanish moss, courtesy of Dr. John H. Lienhard, which shows a scaly exterior “hide” that protects and holds water within.
Some people also believe Spanish moss is a parasite and that it is harming its “host tree.” But Spanish moss is not a parasite and does not feed off the tree – although it can occasionally harm a tree if it blocks enough of the light to its leaves. And here’s a weird fact: Spanish moss is actually a relative of the pineapple.
Spanish Moss in History
Even though we see it as a passive, hanging plant, Spanish moss played an important role as a textile in early civilizations from Florida to Texas. Historical documents show that American Indians all over the Southeast, including the Timucua of Florida, wove the fibers into yarn for clothing. It was also incorporated as a binding agent for dwellings, used as bedding in infant cradles, woven into mats and blankets, and made into shawls, belts, skirts, dolls, and even tea!
And both Indians and early settlers used it as kindling and stuffing for pillows and mattresses.
It’s also reported that Henry Ford used it early on as stuffing for Model T automobile seats, and it was used as filler for furniture and saddles.
In case you want to try “wearing” some Spanish moss yourself, be aware that Spanish moss that is found close to the ground is likely to house chiggers. Chiggers are a type of mite that makes you itch! And according to one researcher, Regina L. Suriel, the plant is also “a microhabitat for various organisms, including rat snakes, different species of bats, and one species of jumping spider.”
So unless you’re prepared to boil or cure the plant like the Indians did, just appreciate it as a natural part of the Southeastern landscape with a long history.
Photo credits: Dr. John H. Lienhard, Christine Janesko
Carocci, M. (2010). Clad with the ‘Hair of Trees’: A History of Native American Spanish Moss Textile Industries. Textile History, 41(1), 3-27. doi:10.1179/174329510×12670196126485
Suriel, R. L. (2010). Spanish Moss: Not Just Hanging in There. Science Activities, 47(4), 133-140. doi:10.1080/00368121003739398