Romantic Spanish moss isn't harmful

Published: Thursday, March 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 1, 2007 at 12:18 a.m.
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Spanish moss is not a parasite, but an epiphyte that obtains its moisture and nutrients from the air. It does not kill trees, but it may weaken some.

Special to The Sun
A caller asks: Will Spanish moss kill my tree?
The simple answer is: Most likely not. But sometimes it looks like it does.
Spanish moss is one of the most endearing and enduring symbols of the lower South: Gray-green beard-like growth draping live oaks and cypresses - apparently the moss' favorite perches - creating a soft curtain beneath the branches, swaying to soft breezes and filtering late afternoon sunlight. Alternately, the gray stuff can be ugly eyesore and an annoyance once it covers a tree.
In between is a benign plant that has served its commercial purpose and spawned wonderful folklore. Spanish moss is not a moss, but a member of the pineapple family, Bromeliaceae. The Tillandsia usneoides - Tillandsia after Dr. Elias Tillandz, a Finnish botanist; usneoides, for "oides" which means "looks like" lichen, Usnea.
It is native to Chile and southern Andes and now grows throughout the humid Southeast, from eastern Texas through Florida up to southern Virginia.
Spanish moss is not a parasite. It is am epiphyte, which means it obtains its moisture and nutrients from air-borne particles.
The many gray scales covering the thin fibers receive and hold atmospheric moisture. Sunlight, of course, aids photosynthesis.
Moss spreads through two means: seed or vegetatively. If you look closely late spring, you will notice small flowers abound on the plant. These look like small green or yellow blossoms at the end of some of the strands.
These then turn into little seed pods, which pop open scattering seeds. These seed - which have little sails - are spread by the wind or birds or insects and lodge into crevices of the bark in nearby trees.
The seeds lodge easily in rough-barked trees, such as live oaks. Small temporary roots fasten the seedling strands to organic material until the plant has grown enough to produce its own food.
Vegetatively, small sections of moss may blow off or become dislodged by creatures and likewise wedge into cracks of bark or other organic spots and continue to grow.
You will see moss on dead cypress and other trees, but it started growing there when the trees were alive.
Besides its decorative nature, Spanish moss has had its role in folklore - much of it of the romantic sort. The characters and their ethnicities vary, but the stories usually involve a forbidden love, a man's long beard or a maiden's long tresses, and either being held captive in a tree or holing up in one.
The proliferation of Spanish moss led to its use in many ways, from being spun into garments, used as mulch for the garden, filament for fishermen's nets and woven into stuffing for furniture.
Once the outer layer of Spanish moss is stripped off by drying or other methods, what is left is a dark, wiry fiber. This was used to stuff mattresses - air could filter through the fibers, making them cooler than other stuffing. What we thought was "horse hair" stuffing was really Spanish moss fibers.
It is now commonly used in crafts and floral arrangements. Why someone would go to a store and buy packaged Spanish moss is beyond me, but it might be because the natural stuff is full of bugs. Chiggers mostly. And if you've ever encountered chiggers, you will give most moss a wide berth until you have plenty of insecticide on you.
It reminds me a fourth-grade Christmas project in St. Petersburg with our teacher - I am not lying - named Mrs. Looney. We were to bring in wire coathangers, Spanish moss and ribbon to make wreaths.
It was a wonderful idea until a student in the back - I am not lying - Homer Frisch started itching. His moss was full of critters as, it turns out, most of ours were too. Out went the moss in one fell swoop.
You can rid yourself of any hidden animals by microwaving the batches briefly, or dipping in boiling water and then drying. The fibers eventually degrade into the interior filament, so this is not a permanent decoration. Now to the matter of it taking over your trees.
While the moss itself isn't robbing the plant of its nutrients, it may be robbing it of sunlight, which will weaken even a mature tree. Heavy growth will become heavier with rainfall, and could weight a branch so much it breaks off. In hurricane season - or other stormy weather - the additional wind resistance of moss can cause limb breakage.
If there is a proliferation of moss, some landscape and pest control companies will spray the tree - during its deciduous period, preferably - with a copper-based product that weakens and eventually kills the bromeliad while not harming the tree. This is preferable to hand-pulling large batches because the plant does not have the chance to flower and produce more seeds. Hand-pulling is OK for small "infestations" but doing so during the summer may dislodge seeds that will germinate in other parts of the tree or nearby suitable trees.
Marina Blomberg can be reached at or 374-5025.

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