Living here in Charleston, you can’t help but notice the splendor of the native oak trees. Different from oaks in other areas of the country, our oaks are graced with Spanish Moss delicately hanging to the branches swaying in the southern breeze. What exactly is it? Well one thing it isn’t is a moss. It is actually a Bromeliad, which means it is in the same taxonomic family as pineapples and succulent house plants. Although Spanish moss grows on trees, it is not a parasite. It doesn’t put down roots in the tree it grows on, nor does it take nutrients from it. The plant thrives on rain and fog, sunlight, and airborne or waterborne dust and debris.The surface of the Spanish moss plant is covered with tiny gray scales which trap water until the plant can absorb it. The plant’s tissues can hold more water than the plant needs, to keep it going through dry periods. When the tissues plump up after a rain, Spanish moss appears more green. As the water is used, it returns to a gray hue.
It isn’t from Spain either! It’s native to Mexico, Central America, South America, the U.S., and the Caribbean. In the U.S., it grows from Texas to Virginia, staying in the moister areas of the South. Its preferred habitat is a healthy tree in tropical swampland.
So, how did the name Spanish Moss come to be? Spanish moss was given its name by French explorers. Native Americans told them the plant was called Itlaokla which was their word for tree hair. The French were reminded of the Spanish conquistadors’ long beards, so they called it Spanish Beard.” The Spaniards got back at them by calling the plant French Hair. The French name won out, and as time went by Spanish Beard changed to Spanish moss.
Historically, Native American women used it for dresses. It can be used as an arbor roof or to hang over a chain-link fence for privacy, but since it will only live in trees, you have to replenish the supply as the moss dies. American colonists mixed Spanish moss with mud to make mortar for their house…..some of which are still standing strong. Dried moss makes good tinder for fires, and you can make it into blankets, rope, and mattress filling. Mattresses filled with Spanish moss sometimes carry chiggers, but experienced collectors say chiggers only invade the moss after it touches the ground. Frogs and spiders like it too. Before tackling a mound of Spanish moss, you will want to be on guard for snakes that may be hiding in it. Personally, I like admiring Spanish Moss hanging gracefully on the trees and will leave it at that!