One of the most frequently mentioned facts around swamp tours and nature centers in the South is, “Did you know that Spanish Moss is in the pineapple family?” Indeed, they are both bromeliads, but that is where their similarity ends.
Native Americans called it “Itla-okla” (tree hair), the French mockingly called it “Barbe Espagnol” (Spanish hair), and the Spanish countered with “Cabello Frances” (French hair). The accepted name it’s now Spanish Moss (Tillansia usneoides), but this is a misnomer since it is not a bryophyte, or true moss.Spanish Moss is most common on oaks, but is often seen on hackberry and elm. It is an epiphyte, a plant that grows upon another plant without directly gaining nourishment from it. In fact, its nourishment comes from dust and water borne in the air and, very importantly, dead cells sloughing off older or dying trees. For this reason, it is rarely seen on young, vigorously growing vegetation.Although producing a tiny green flower in June, followed by seeds, the normal mode of reproduction is fragmentation of phytomers (portions of the plant between the joints) with the “festoons” being blown to other limbs or trees. When a phytomer dies, adjacent phytomers are usually held together by the sinuous vascular bundles (the black “hair”) which run throughout the plant. Because of this method of growth, Spanish Moss can live forever!Since before European humans came to the New World, Spanish Moss was used for bedding and stuffing. It was highly desirable because no insects attacked it and it is second only to curled hair in resiliency. The moss industry reached its peak in Louisiana during the 1920’s and today is no longer economically important, being replaced by foam rubber after World War II. Parula warblers use it extensively in building their nests and some bats, especially the Red and Seminole Bats, use Spanish Moss as roosting sites during the day.
The moss industry certainly caused the disappearance of large quantities of Spanish Moss, but the decline has continued and is currently believed to be due to various forms of air pollution. Can you imagine obtaining all of your nourishment from the air?