(L.) L., 1762
Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is a flowering plant that grows upon larger trees, commonly the Southern Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) or Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) in the southeastern United States from Texas and Florida north to Southern Arkansas and Virginia. It is also native to much of Mexico, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Central America, South America and the West Indies as well as being naturalized in Queensland (Australia) and in French Polynesia.
The plant's specific name usneoides means "resembling Usnea", and it indeed closely resembles its namesake Usnea, also known as beard lichen, but in fact Spanish moss is neither a moss nor a lichen. Instead, it is a flowering plant (angiosperm) in the family Bromeliaceae (the bromeliads) that grows hanging from tree branches in full sun or partial shade. Formerly this plant has been placed in the genera Anoplophytum, Caraguata, and Renealmia. The northern limit of its natural range is Northampton County, Virginia, with unsubstantiated colonial-era reports in southern Maryland where no populations are now known to be extant. The primary range is in the southeastern United States (including Puerto Rico), to Argentina, growing wherever the climate is warm enough and has a relatively high average humidity. It has been introduced to similar locations around the world, including Hawaii and Australia.
The plant consists of a slender stem bearing alternate thin, curved or curly, heavily scaled leaves 2–6 cm (0.79–2.36 in) long and 1 mm (0.039 in) broad, that grow vegetatively in chain-like fashion (pendant) to form hanging structures up to 6 m (240 in) in length. The plant has no aerial roots and its flowers are tiny and inconspicuous. It propagates both by seed and vegetatively by fragments that blow on the wind and stick to tree limbs, or are carried by birds as nesting material.
While it rarely kills the trees, it lowers their growth rate by reducing the amount of light to a tree's own leaves. It also increases wind resistance, which can prove fatal to the host tree in a hurricane.
In the southern U.S., the plant seems to show a preference of growth on Southern Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) or Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) because of these trees' high rates of foliar mineral leaching (calcium, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus) providing an abundant supply of nutrients to the plant, but it can also colonize other tree species such as Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), crepe-myrtles (Lagerstroemia spp.), other oaks, and even pines.
Spanish moss in culture and folklore
Due to its propensity for growing in humid southern locales like Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Eastern North Carolina, southeastern Virginia, South Carolina, east and south Texas, and Alabama, the plant is often associated with Southern Gothic imagery.
It was introduced to Hawaii in the 19th century, and became a popular ornamental and lei plant. It is often called "Pele's hair" after Pele the Hawaiian goddess. The term "Pele's hair" is also used to refer to a type of filamentous volcanic glass.
American Punk Rock band Against Me! has a song titled "Spanish Moss" on their 2010 album White Crosses. "Look into the Spanish moss. Let your mind conjure up old ghosts. Ride your bike through lost Florida streets. Everything we’ve said and done, can be so easily forgotten. You can always change who you are."
Spanish moss has been used for various purposes, including building insulation, mulch, packing material, mattress stuffing, and fiber. In the early 1900s it was used commercially in the padding of car seats. In 1939 over 10,000 tons of processed Spanish moss was produced. It is still collected today in smaller quantities for use in arts and crafts, or for beddings for flower gardens, and as an ingredient in the traditional wall covering material bousillage.
In the desert regions of the southwestern United States, dried Spanish moss plants are used in the manufacture of evaporative coolers, colloquially known as swamp coolers. These are used to cool homes and offices much less expensively than using air conditioners. A pump squirts water onto a pad made of Spanish moss plants. A fan then pulls air through the pad and into the building. Evaporation of the water on the pads serves to reduce the air temperature, thus cooling the building.
Spanish moss is also known to have been worn by the women of the Timucua Indian tribe.
It is also used by some as the filling for traditional voodoo dolls.
- "Tillandsia usneoides (L.) L.". Germplasm Resources Information Network. United States Department of Agriculture. 1999-02-26. Retrieved 2009-12-08.
- Kew World Checklist of Selected Plant Families, Tillandsia usneoides
- Flora of North America, Tillandsia usneoides (Linnaeus) Linnaeus, Sp. Pl., ed. 2. 1: 411. 1762.
- Biota of North America Program, 2013 county distribution map
- Genus: Tillandsia L., GRIN Taxonomy for Plants, Agricultural Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture.
- "From Bearded Trees" Popular Mechanics, October 1950, p. 155.
- William H. Schlesinger and P. L. Marks, "Mineral Cycling and the Niche of Spanish Moss, Tillandsia usneoides L.", American Journal of Botany, Vol. 64, No. 10 (Nov.–Dec., 1977), pp. 1254–1262.
- "Nā Lei o Hawai`i - Types of Lei"
- Saturday Night Live transcripts, Season 1: Episode 21 (May 22, 1976), Gordon Lightfoot performs "Spanish Moss".
- "Hair From Trees....Spanish Moss is new upholstering material" Popular Science, June 1937
- Adams, Dennis. Spanish Moss: Its Nature, History and Uses. Beaufort County Library, SC.
- Gutenberg, Arthur William (1955). The Economics of the Evaporative Cooler Industry in the Southwestern United States. Stanford University Graduate School of Business. p. 167.
- Mabberley, D.J. 1987. The Plant Book. A Portable Dictionary of the Higher Plants. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-34060-8.
- Tillandsia usneoides (Taxonomic Serial No.: 42371), Integrated Taxonomic Information System
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