Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Uncovering the Mysteries of Spanish Moss Part 1: The Science Side

Somewhere in Georgia, along I-95 south, I took a photo of a bunch of trees that caught my attention. Well … it wasn’t exactly the trees that had caught my eye, it was what I can only describe as hair-like clumps of dark stuff which hung like garland from their branches that did it. To me, this stuff looked like clusters of grapes on zombie steroids; limp, lifeless, and greyish in color.

I was immediately smitten with the stuff. Fascinated by it, actually. I don’t think it’s limp and lifeless. I think it has a lot of character and personality. How it hangs from tress, cascading from limbs in a tangled mess of silvery strands, to me, projects a sense of mysteriousness onto the landscape and creates an ominous presence about it.
Spooky. I love it.

Our traveling buddies, John and Angie, told me it was Spanish moss. I had to learn more about this Spanish moss. Where does it grow? Does it grow on trees or from them? How does it grow? Why don’t I see any of this stuff in Ohio?

Once we came back from our Florida vacation, and got resettled in (sometimes you feel like you need a vacation from your vacation), the hunt to learn more about Spanish moss began. I turned to the trusty Internet and simplified my search by using the keywords: Spanish moss.

I was quite amazed with the amount of information available on the topic, and although a lot of the information, as I discovered, was repeat info it told me that Spanish moss is a hot topic…everyone seems to have some sort of interest in it. I can relate.

The first thing I learned: Spanish moss is not a moss at all, and not even of Spanish origin. It is, oddly, related to the pineapple.

I also learned that Spanish moss is not a parasite (although it does carry parasites such as chiggers, so be wary).

It does not depend on the tree to survive. It actually does no harm to the tree at all. Instead, Spanish moss uses it for real estate purposes.  To a degree it’s a real estate guru and as any real estate guru knows it’s all about location, location, location. The perfect location for the Spanish moss is a nice hardwood tree such as the likes of the gum, oak, bald cypress, elm, and pecan trees.

We Ohioans can boast about our fair share of trees. The buckeye is our state tree and has been since 1953. We even have the same trees that make ideal homes for Spanish moss (actually only two: the oak and elm), but Ohio lacks the satisfactory environment needed to sustain Spanish moss growth.

Found in the southern states, Spanish moss is a plant that feeds off the air. It doesn’t seem to care if the tree it finally attaches itself to, and calls home, is dead or alive. It feeds off what floats in the air using its leaves and stems and literally drinks in the atmospheric moisture.

It spreads itself, or propagates if you prefer to call it, in two different ways: via birds and wind. There are little flowers that grow on the Spanish moss and they produce a teeny, tiny seed that will eventually get swept away by the wind.

Birds are responsible for stealing the Spanish moss for their own homes (it does make a nice bedding and was once used to stuff furniture for our own homes). During transport the birds will often lose a chunk of the Spanish moss, thus giving it an opportunity to attach itself to a new home and continue to grow.
How it knows where to find the right tree is beyond me.

One of the things I found amusing were the different names given to this grey, hair-like plant. The term Spanish moss was evidently adopted over time. The first name given to it was by the Native Americans who called it tree hair.

The French explorers caught wind of the name tree hair and decided to change it for their own wicked purposes, and to spite their rivals the Spaniards, by calling it Spanish Beard.
Once the Spaniards caught wind of the name they took it upon themselves to change it to French Hair as a means to get back at their foes, the French.

Even back in the 1500’s they fought dirty.
Other names include, Greybeard, southern moss, and Florida moss.

Of all the research I gathered about Spanish moss there is something that intrigued me the most. Something that is so fascinating it makes you wonder if it could be true.
It is definitely spooky…

Although I did not directly cite any source in particular, I think in only fair to list those I did discover, and who were very instrumental in helping me write this article. I found them all interesting and each source helped to enhance my knowledge of Spanish moss. I provide them here with the hopes that they will help you too.

Happy reading!
Adams, Dennis. Spanish Moss: Its Nature, History and Uses. Beaufort County Library, SC.

Brown. Grey and Graceful Swags. Orlando Sentinel, April 2, 1988.

Cox, Lee May. Strange and Beautiful Spanish Moss. Orlando Sentinel, October 26, 1996.

Felsher, John. Spanish Moss Remains the Stuff of Legends throughout the Deep South. Voice of North Carolina (website).
Martinez, Raymond. The Story of Spanish Moss and Its Relatives. Home Publications, 1959.

Miss Cellania. 10 Things You Should Know About Spanish Moss. Mental_floss (website).
Veldman, Hank. Nature’sTreasure is Spanish Moss. Orlando Sentinel, May 28, 1997.


  1. Thank you for citing and letting us know that you enjoyed the Beaufort County Library's (SC) Local History and Nature page on Spanish Moss.

  2. You are welcome! Thank you for providing the information!