The rich history of Spanish moss

The rich history of Spanish moss
Spanish moss has a rich history in East Texas. (Source: Pexels)

EAST TEXAS - A lady from Huntington called me this week complaining of Spanish moss in her oaks. She’s lived at her residence for over 20 years and this year was the first year that she found Spanish moss in the branches of the trees that she enjoys.

And she’s not a fan of it.

It’s common throughout the south. When I think of the Deep South, in places like Louisiana, Alabama or Florida, it perfectly belongs there. But in Angelina County?

To be clear, it is native to the Mexico, Central America, South America, the U.S., and the Caribbean. In the U.S., it grows from Texas to Virginia. While I have seen it around these parts, it mainly stays in the moist habitat preferring a healthy tree in a wetland site.

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is not a moss. It is a bromeliad. The bromeliad family of plants include succulent house plants and even pineapples as a distant cousin.

Additionally, it is an epiphyte. Epiphytes are organisms that grows on the surface of a plant but takes moisture and nutrients from the air and rain water. We would be very wrong to call it a parasite, like Mistletoe. And we would be wrong as well to call it a saprophyte like Resurrection fern that lives on the top of large old oak branches around our Farmers Market.

Very much a plant with leaves and flowers, there are at least five recognized native cultivars and three hybrids.

The most common way Spanish moss is propagated and spread is by fragmented pieces called festoons. If a festoon is broken off and carried off by wind or birds who use it as nest material, it can grow into a full plant. Additionally, the seeds of the moss can float on the wind like dandelion seeds until they land on a favorable limb grow.

Native Americans called it Itla-okla, which meant “tree hair.” It was the early French explorers that called it Barbe Espagnol, or “Spanish Beard”, more or less as an insult to the Spanish conquistadors long beards.

The Spanish, in return called it Cabello Francés, or “French Hair.” Over time the French name won out, and as time went by Spanish Beard was adopted as Spanish moss.

Many kinds of wildlife use of Spanish moss. Birds use it for nesting material. Frogs and spiders live in it. Those who gather Spanish moss are warned against ticks, fleas and chiggers, but experienced collectors know chiggers only invade the moss after it touches the ground.

The major pest of cotton, the boll weevil, is especially drawn to Spanish moss, but moths are not. As such it was used in place of wool (and not cotton) in upholstery before synthetic fibers replaced both.

In the past there were several other uses. Native American women used it for dresses in the past. American colonists mixed Spanish moss with mud to make mortar for their houses—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 are noted for staying cool on a warm summer night.

In modern gardens it can be used as a mulch. Not only does it cover the soil, but it also can soak up and retain water.

Like it or not, Spanish moss had a rich history here and may very well be a part of your landscape.

Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is cw-sims@tamu.edu