It’s spooky, romantic, swaying, and quintessentially southern: Spanish moss is a plant shrouded in mystery. What follows is “Spanish Moss 101,” a brief course on this fascinating epiphyte. (Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz.)
The plants literally drip from trees. Just about any tree will do, although Spanish moss is rarely seen on pines. The plants are true epiphytes, merely indicating that they grow upon other plants, commonly draped in breezy festoons. Its stems are long and threadlike, with linear leaves. The plants generally don’t have roots at all, and are easily dislodged or blown out of trees. The stems and leaves are covered with tiny, silvery hairs that are good at absorbing water. After rains, the plants are somewhat greenish.
One of the most common misconceptions of this plant is that it is a parasite. In fact, the plants are not at all attached to the interior of their host tree, like a true parasite, such as mistletoe. Spanish moss is perfectly capable of manufacturing its own food through photosynthesis, thank you, and has no need to tap into the resources of its host. Not being a parasite, it does no direct harm at all to the tree on which it occurs, although particularly heavy growths could conceivably block sunlight, or cause limbs to break. Being an epiphyte, however, it does require something to grow on, and if it falls onto the ground, it’s doomed. (Sometimes it gets itself onto fences or telephone lines, but it doesn’t survive on these very long. It needs a tree.) It can be transferred to a tree in your yard, and some people (not me) have success in growing it well inland from the coast.
Spanish moss is NOT from Spain, although it was associated with Spanish explorers of the New World, especially in Florida and the Gulf Coast. Our plant is native from Virginia (Virginia Beach seems to be its northern range limit) to Mexico, and through much of Central and South America.
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Neither is it a “moss.” In a botanical sense, mosses are non-vascular plants, usually quite small, that reproduce not by flowers and seeds, but by spores (like a fern). Spanish moss is a perfectly good flowering plant, and botanists classify it as a “bromeliad”, and thus related to pineapple. Like all flowering plants, of course, it makes flowers. The flowers are tiny and very easily overlooked. They have a certain minuscule charm, though, with three tiny yellowish petals, and producing a sweet, delicate fragrance. Following the flowers, slender, elongated capsules ripen to a shiny brown, maybe an inch long. These split open along three seams, releasing very tiny, fluffy seeds, which float through the warm, magnolia-drenched evenings to lodge in the bark of an accommodating live oak.
One more thing: there is a popular idea that Spanish moss is full of chiggers and other parasites. It’s not. That is, it’s not any more chigger-laden than other vegetation out there, especially if it’s taken from the ground.
EDITOR’S NOTE: John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia, S.C. 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.