Naturally spooky: Spanish moss

By on October 8, 2014

spanish moss

Though spooky, Spanish moss is a harmless inhabitant of the tree it adorns. Image: K. Oten, NCFS.

Spanish moss is an icon of beauty in the Southeast. However, this drooping, hair-like plant might make some people’s hair stand on end! It summons a somewhat creepy vibe, one that can be especially appreciated with Halloween lurking around the corner. And let’s be honest– when one envisions a haunted Southern plantation, it’s not quite complete without Spanish moss draping gracefully from the branches of enormous live oaks.

But what is this naturally spooky moss? That’s a trick question actually, because it’s not a moss at all! Spanish moss is an epiphyte, meaning that it grows on other plants but does not rely on its host plant for nutrients or water. Everything that is needed for its survival is obtained from sunlight, rain and air. Spanish moss grows best in hot, humid places and is in the bromeliad family, the same that includes pineapple.

A common misconception is that Spanish moss injures the tree from which it hangs. In actuality, the tree is not harmed at all. Spanish moss captures moisture and nutrients from the air with tiny scales that cover it entirely. Because the whole plant is capable of absorption, roots are not needed. To anchor itself to the tree, its stems wrap around branches of the host tree. Rarely, the weight of Spanish moss may contribute to the breakage of an already weakened branch, but in that case, the branch should have been trimmed long ago.

To add to the misnomer, in addition to not really being a moss, Spanish moss is not from Spain either. It is considered a native plant here in the Southeast. So why “Spanish” moss then? There are several stories that describe the origin of the name. One fable describes a Spanish Conquistador pursuing a Native American woman through a forest. Atop a horse, his beard was caught in the branches of an oak tree, torn off, and turned gray with age before spreading throughout the forest. A more humorous suggested derivation of the name is that French explorers called it “Spanish Beard” to insult the Spaniards. In retaliation, the Spanish named it “French Hair.” Obviously, the latter of the two insults did not stick.

So whether you love the classic Southern look of Spanish moss or can’t handle the spooky feeling it gives you, remember that it’s completely harmless and poses no threat to the tree it adorns. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the chiggers that often make their homes in a clump of it. Now that’ll make your skin crawl!

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