(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 lowlands and savannas of 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 upon which it grows, it lowers their growth rate by reducing the amount of light reaching the trees' 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 for 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 shelters a number of creatures, including rat snakes and three species of bats. One species of jumping spider, Pelegrina tillandsiae, has been found only on Spanish moss. Chiggers, though widely assumed to infest Spanish moss, were not present among thousands of other insects identified in one study.
Spanish moss in culture and folklore
Due to its propensity for growing in subtropical humid southern locales like Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, North Carolina, southeastern Virginia, east and south Texas, and Alabama, the plant is often associated with Southern Gothic imagery and Deep South culture.
It was introduced to Hawaii in the 19th century, and became a popular ornamental and lei plant. On Hawai'i 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.
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 some parts of Latin America, Spanish moss is used in Nativity scenes.
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.
- "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.
- Whitaker Jr. J, Ruckdeschel C. Spanish Moss, the Unfinished Chigger Story. Southeastern Naturalist [serial online]. March 2010;9(1):85-94.
- "Nā Lei o Hawai`i - Types of Lei"
- "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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