What Makes Spanish Moss Spanish?

A strand of Spanish Moss

Excellent question.  Tillandsia usneoides, or Spanish Moss as is commonly known, is the gauzy-looking veil that drapes from the branches of southern Live Oaks, Cypress, and even some pines.  Often, at The Vacation Company, we are asked about several wildlife curiousities, the first being “do alligators really roam the golf courses free?” And the second one being, “so just what is Spanish Moss, anyway?”  The following is my attempt to address this odd, yet nostalgic plant ubiquitous to this region.

The only references to it being ‘Spanish’ were in the form of legends.  I found three different tales on the Internet alone.  Two had to do with a Spaniard who dies in a Live Oak tree because of his undying forbidden love of a young Native American woman.  For some reason or other, his beard continues growing until it spreads and populates the other trees, showing that his love truly lived on even after he was gone.  The third tale was about Cherokees who attacked a Spanish couple planning to develop a plantation in Charleston in the 1700’s.  As a warning to any other Europeans to not continue invading their land, the Cherokees cut off the long hair of the wife and threw it into the trees, where it shriveled into gray strands and spread as a way of warning other settlers.

 

Spanish Moss on Live Oaks at Honey Horn Plantation
on Hilton Head Island, SC

 

     The air-plant is not really in the family of moss, as it sounds, but is considered a flowering plant (although the flowers are miniscule) that spreads by seeds and by birds who use it to build nests.  While not exactly a parasite, it does depend on the nutrients of its host trees for certain minerals – like calcium and magnesium -while also needing sun and moisture; which is why it grows well in humid regions like the southeastern United States all the way down to Argentina.  Trees generally don’t benefit from being covered in Spanish Moss, as it makes it hard for the tree to breathe and bend in the wind.

 

Through the years, this plant has supplied both function and art to civilization.  It has been used for pillow stuffing, upholstery filling, and more recently in arts and crafts (Note: it does provide a home for critters like snakes and beetles, so it would be wise to select carefully).  Aesthetically, the romantic and haunting characteristics of Spanish Moss dripping over a swamp, or hanging cobweb-like in a humid forest have also come to represent the genre southern gothic, in novels and movies.

Personally, I can’t imagine looking across a Hilton Head Island marsh sunset, or bike riding through the Forest Preserve without seeing it waving slowly in the breeze.  It has come to signify home for me, lace curtains decorating the scenery as I drive towards the island from any point north.

This ends this week’s science topic.  There will be a pop-quiz on Facebook.

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One thought on “What Makes Spanish Moss Spanish?

  1. Pingback: Hilton Head Island, South Carolina; An Oasis For Artists | HiltonHeadBlogAngel

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