One of the South’s most iconic plants boasts a storied history and timeless appeal.
By Nancy Dorman-Hickson
The South owes much of its allure to Spanish moss. Writers, singers and folklorists have paid tribute to its inspiring tendrils, cloaking trees like delicate lace shawls. “When I give tours, people from other areas are always intrigued by Spanish moss,” says Tim Lowry, a storyteller and tour guide in Summerville, South Carolina.
It’s easy to see why the graceful plant demands attention. With its thick hanging curtain dancing in the breeze, it is the ultimate accessory for trees. As a child, Lowry climbed trees covered with Spanish moss at his grandparents’ property. There, he’d perch and get lost for hours in tales of imagination. “A live oak draped in Spanish moss looked like the quintessential storybook tree to me,” he says.
Lowry is one of many who have been inspired by Spanish moss. Historically, the plant has been the topic of numerous local stories and legends, and it has even served practical purposes in the lives of those who have it in their environment.
Defining and Finding It
Spanish moss is almost always defined first by what it isn’t. “It’s actually not a moss at all, nor is it Spanish,” says Turner Spratling, an Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension agent in Glynn County, Georgia. “It’s a flowering plant, meaning it can reproduce from seed. Mosses reproduce from spores, not seeds.” The seeds float until they encounter a tree, where they settle into the fissures and crags of its limbs. The plant can also reproduce from a broken strand that settles on a tree host, and it can even survive on telephone lines and fences if there is enough moisture and light. Depending on environmental conditions, its threadlike stems can grow to lengths of around 25 feet.
“Spanish moss gets everything it needs from air, rainwater and sunlight,” Spratling says. The iconic plant can grow on pines, sweet gums, palms and, in general, any plant with rough bark that allows the moss to better attach itself, including elm and pecan trees. But of all the options, it favors live oak and bald cypress.
“We have plenty of oak and cypress trees here on the coast,” Spratling says. “Spanish moss needs high humidity and mild winters to survive, which is exactly what our Southern coastal environment provides.” Indeed, many of the most photogenic trees at Sea Island wear the soft gray curls of Spanish moss (see sidebar).
Yet, while it thrives in moist environments, it has the ability to trap water, allowing it to survive dry periods and going dormant until moisture improves. “The stems and leaves are covered with overlapping silver-gray scales which are important for absorbing water and trapping dust and nutrient particles,” explains Keren Giovengo, program manager of the EcoScapes Sustainable Land Use program with the University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. Spanish moss also offers a faint sweet fragrance from its three-petaled flowers, which are tiny and therefore often overlooked.
Another fact that often comes as a surprise is the moss’s relatively close relationship to pineapples. “It’s actually a bromeliad and is part of the pineapple family,” Giovengo says. “Its original native habitat is believed to be the Peruvian Andes. It’s native to Central America, South America and, of course, the Southern regions of the United States, stretching from Texas to Virginia.”
The plant also plays an important role in the local ecosystem, providing a habitat for many different animals. Its large mats harbor a great variety of insects, bats, birds, frogs, lizards, snakes and other wildlife. “Several species of bats roost in clumps of Spanish moss,” Giovengo says. “Yellow-throated warblers and northern parulas build their nests inside living Spanish moss as well. Eagles, ospreys, red-shouldered hawks, mockingbirds and others gather the moss for nest cushioning and insulation. Gray squirrels also fluff their nests with Spanish moss. Deer and wild turkey eat the delicate leaves. There is at least one species of jumping spider … that only lives in Spanish moss.”
Legends and Lore
While the scientific name for Spanish moss is Tillandsia usneoides, it has numerous nicknames, including Grandpa’s Beard, Tree Hair, Spanish Beard, French Hair, Long Moss, Wool Crape, Old Man’s Beard and Grandfather’s Whiskers. Such colorful monikers often stem from folk tales surrounding the plant. Storyteller Lowry spins one of them: “The reason that we commonly call it Spanish moss is that it reminded Native American tribes of the Spaniards’ long great beards,” he says.
According to Giovengo, the French also noted the resemblance to the Spaniards’ facial hair. “French settlers in the Southeastern U.S. in the 1700s called the plant ‘Barbe Espagnol,’ meaning ‘Spanish Beard’ in reference to the long beards often worn by Spanish explorers at the time.” But, she continues, “The Spanish called the plant ‘French Hair.’ Several legends suggest that the name Spanish moss is simply a refinement on the French name. Thus, ‘Spanish moss,’ derived from the original ‘Spanish Beard,’ is the name that has stuck and is most commonly used today.”
Stories also surround the role that Spanish moss plays in the environment, and some real-life claims about it are actually without merit. For instance, the plant is often thought to be a tree killer.
“People may mistake Spanish moss for doing the same thing as a parasitic plant, such as mistletoe,” Spratling. says. “Mistletoe actually roots into a tree and robs it of its nutrients. Spanish moss is not a parasite. It’s an epiphyte, meaning it doesn’t rely on its host for nutrients. Its stems wrap around the surface of the tree. Spanish moss uses trees for support, not survival.”
The plant is also cited as a host for chiggers (tiny, red larva of a family of mites), but Spratling disputes that notion, too.
“Chiggers are actually soil-dwelling; they usually don’t climb trees to find Spanish moss,” he says. Chiggers can, however, get into Spanish moss when the plant comes in contact with the ground, essentially using it as a ladder.
Then and Now
Over the years, Spanish moss has been prized for its medicinal, household and commercial applications. Giovengo says that Native American tribes used it for numerous purposes. “When the outer coating is cleaned, tough, black, curly inner fibers are exposed,” she explains. “These were woven into a coarse cloth used for bedding, floor mats and horse blankets.” The fibers were also incorporated into rope and arrows, and even served as an ingredient in plaster. Moss was also stuffed into dugout canoes to prevent them from drying out and splitting, and it proved useful for entertainment and health purposes. “The Natchez tribe played a game that used fist-size balls that were stuffed with Spanish moss,” Giovengo says. “And the plant was brewed into a tea to treat chills, fevers, rheumatism and contraction pains of childbirth.”
Up until around 1960, Spanish moss was commercially harvested. “It was chemically stripped of its outer gray bark for use in stuffing car seats, mattresses, furniture and packing material,” Giovengo explains. “Automaker Henry Ford used the fluffy strands for cushioning and insulating the seats in the first Model T Fords.” Its commercial applications decreased following the rise of synthetic materials. “We don’t really need it anymore to make ropes, clothing, et cetera,” Spratling says. However, it is still a popular choice for livestock fodder, packing material, arts and crafts, mulch, garden décor and floral arrangements.
Its role continues to evolve. Modern studies indicate that extracts from Spanish moss could aid in healing wounds and preventing skin infections, thanks to antibacterial properties, and it may even help reduce blood sugar. A Japanese cosmetics manufacturer found that Spanish moss may offer anti-aging benefits.
For now, however, the storied plant is most commonly prized for its beauty. “It is truly an icon of our region and is revered by both residents and visitors,” Giovengo says. “Spanish moss is a signature plant of the Deep South.”
Spratling agrees: “Not only does it help bring balance to the wildlife habitat and our ecosystem, but I think it provides a lot of aesthetic value to our region. Coastal cities and beach towns wouldn’t really feel like coastal cities and beach towns if we didn’t see Spanish moss hanging from a beautiful live oak as we drove past. Not a whole lot of other regions in the country get the luxury of having that view. It’s a quintessential part of the South.”
See It at Sea Island
Trees are among Sea Island’s most beautiful natural attributes. Billowing Spanish moss fluttering in the breeze enhances the scenic landscapes. While it can be found all around the Island, some of the most picturesque areas to view Spanish moss include the Avenue of the Oaks, and around the three golf courses that are located at The Lodge.
The Avenue of the Oaks lines the drive to the Sea Island Golf Club. Planted by Anna Page King, who inherited the land in 1826, this double row of century-plus live oaks provides a proper grand entrance.
Spanish moss-draped trees can also be spotted near the Retreat golf course’s main entry drive.
More opportunities to view the towering cloaked trees include The Cloister’s grounds, in addition to Sea Island Drive.