Sunday, November 22, 2009

Apple #421: Spanish Moss

Also while I was in Florida, I took some photos of Spanish moss.

Spanish moss, growing lushly on this tree in Sarasota, Florida
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Contrary to what most people think, Spanish moss is not a parasite. It is an epiphyte, which means that while it grows on another plant, it gets its nutrients from the air and rainwater, not from the plant on which it's growing.
  • It's also not really a moss. It's a flowering plant -- a Bromeliad, to be precise.
  • It's not Spanish, either. The name comes from an insult. When the French showed up in the New World and saw the plant growing here, they called it "Spanish beard" to insult their rival colonists. The Spanish tried to get them back by calling it "French beard," but it was the insult to the Spanish that stuck.
  • The moss will wrap its stems around the host tree and hang leafy stems down from the branches. This helps it to absorb more moisture and nutrients from the air and from the stuff that's collected in the crevices of the bark. The leaves have cup-shaped scales that catch the water, and the leaves' surface is permeable so the water that collects there can seep in more easily.

Spanish moss, up close and personal. Not quite close enough to see the cup shape of the leaves, though.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • It's so good at catching water, it can withstand long periods of drought. If the weather gets too hot and dry, the plant won't die but will only go dormant until it can get moisture again.
  • The fact that it's so good at collecting water is what makes Spanish moss seem like a parasite. It can absorb up to ten times its weight in water. This means that the plant can become so heavy it can crack the branch it's growing on. If it grows lush enough, it can also keep the leaves from getting enough sun.

This much Spanish moss might be enough to break its supporting branches. Also note that while the moss is draping around the telephone wire, none is actually growing from the wire.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • It likes to grow on trees that have horizontal branches with lots of forks, and bark that's rough or scaly enough to catch the moss's seeds. This means it likes trees like hackberry or live oak.
  • If you really don't want Spanish moss growing on your tree, you can pull it off yourself if the tree is small enough that you can reach the moss standing on a ladder. If the tree is larger and would require someone standing in a cherry-picker to get to all the moss, it's probably too labor-intensive and therefore expensive to hire someone to pull off the moss for you.
  • The better recommendation is to prune the tree branches that are especially moss-laden. These will tend to be the more horizontally-growing branches. If you're judicious about selecting which few branches to prune, you'll have removed enough moss that the sunlight will be able to reach the leaves of other branches and thus improve the tree's overall health.

If the owner of this tree decided to get rid of the Spanish moss, he or she would do better to prune a select branch or two.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Spanish moss also likes places where there's lots of humidity -- near wetlands, ponds, or rivers -- because that will give the moss the moisture in the air it needs to survive.
  • You might see some Spanish moss on telephone wires. It may have been blown there, but Spanish moss can't actually survive on telephone wires (or on fences or on buildings or other non-living material). If you see moss that appears to be actually growing on a telephone wire, that's ball moss, not Spanish moss.
  • It can't withstand the cold. If temperatures drop below 22°F, the plant will die. This is why it grows mainly in the south, southeast, and west coast of the United States and in Central and South America into Argentina.
  • After about four days of blooming, the flowers give way to pods that hold little black seeds. These pods open in the winter to reveal anywhere from 2 to 23 tiny seeds. When the pods burst open, the seeds fly away on the air or are carried off by birds. Each seed is surrounded by a bunch of little hairs that help it float longer on the air currents.

A Spanish moss seed. If you looked at that link above to the flowers, you'd notice how the seed resembles the flower.
(Photo from

  • The little hairs on the seeds end in tiny barbs so that when a seed hits a tree branch it will stick there and grow. The seed won't form any roots, though; Spanish moss has no roots. In about two weeks, the seeds will have sprouted stems and it will be pretty much the full plant.
  • The plant can also reproduce if the wind or a bird carries a shred of it to a new plant. That shred will fix itself to the bark of its new location, sprout stems, and carry on with its business as usual.
  • Birds like to use Spanish moss to build their nests. Warblers, owls, egrets, and mockingbirds are particularly fond of Spanish moss as building material. Squirrels like it for that purpose, too.

I'm not exactly sure what's going on here. I took this photo looking up at a branch. I don't know if the tree has produced an offshoot that the moss is now growing on, or if some other plant has also taken up residence in the moss.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Lots of other creatures make their homes right in the Spanish moss itself. Chiggers (which are redbugs) and spiders like to live in Spanish moss. Since bats like to eat bugs, bats are also fond of living in Spanish moss. Since rat snakes like to eat bats, you can also occasionally find rat snakes in Spanish moss.
  • So, because of all these creatures that call Spanish moss home, if you collect Spanish moss yourself and you want to use it as a decorative bedding around your plants, inspect it carefully before you take it home. Some people dry the moss first in their microwave oven before using it in crafts.
  • All commercial processors that sell Spanish moss will have cleaned, dried, and heated the moss before packaging it to be sold in stores. So you won't have to worry about finding any bugs in your store-bought dried Spanish moss.
  • People used to use Spanish moss for all kinds of things:
  1. Mattresses -- the Spanish moss' natural insulating properties were said to help the mattresses stay cooler and more comfortable than ticking or other materials used at the time.
  2. Stuffing in the seat cushions of Model T Fords
  3. Bridles
  4. Saddle blankets
  5. Material used to repair fishing nets
  6. Filler in potholes and puddles
  7. Mulch
  8. Mixed with mud, as caulk in the chinks of colonists' cabins.
  • Back in the day (I'm not sure when; none of my sources provided dates for this) moss pickers wire hired to pluck the moss from the trees using long poles. They might be able to pull down as much as a ton of moss from a single large tree. Once dried, the moss might weigh only 20% of that.
  • Spanish moss is still used today as stuffing in upholstery and as packing material. And it's being studied by medical researchers as an aide in controlling glucose levels in people with diabetes.
  • But its most common uses today are as mulch to help retain moisture around other plants, and, dried, as decoration.

Even the Pottery Barn sells decorative Spanish moss.
(Photo from Not2Shabby)

Painter Hector Hernandez has still more ideas about how to use Spanish moss.
(Photo from Emvergeoning)

You might also be interested in this entry about true mosses.

University of Florida, Florida 4-H Forest Ecology, Florida Forest Plants, Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides)
University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Spanish Moss and Ball Moss
Dennis Adams, Information Coordinator, Beaufort County Library, Spanish Moss: Its Nature, History, and Uses
Garden Guides, Spanish Moss - Plant Information


  1. Where I live, we usually find spanish moss. Even though it might hold moisture very well, it's perfect to start a fire. When we go camping with friends, we collect fallen branches and logs, and also spanish moss. So when we arrange the bonfire, we put the spanish moss under all the wood, and start by lighting it.
    By the way: excellent blog. I really like it!

  2. Ah, yes, another idea for how to use Spanish moss! Thanks, Zim. And I'm glad you like the Daily Apple. Hope you stop by again. :)

  3. We don't have it here in the Southwest (not enough water) but I have seen it in the South and think it's beautiful.


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