Spanish Moss

Trees draped with Spanish moss are a common sight in the American South. But to many of us who live without it, it is an enchanting phenomenon.

Spanish moss, or Tillandsia usneoides, is an epiphyte, an organism often dubbed “airplant” for the way it derives its nutrients not from soil but from air. Other epiphytes include lichen, orchids and bromeliads.

The moss does not steal nutrients from the host tree, so it is not a parasite.

And, as the guides readily say in the Okefenokee Swamp, it’s not Spanish and it’s not a moss.

It is native to the Southeast U.S. and tropical Americas, and is a bromeliad.

More info: Spanish Moss Wikipedia

In Georgia, where all these photos are from, you see it languidly cloaked on oaks and bald cypress the most, but other trees don it too.

Unlike many plants, it has no roots. Instead, it absorbs nutrients and moisture through minute scales, called Trichomes. The cupped scales trap water until the plant can absorb it. It can absorb ten times its weight in water. I’ve included a magnified photo, at the end, showing the scales.

When it’s dry, Spanish moss is gray, but when it’s wet and holding water, it has a gray-green look to it.

For propagating, Spanish moss has tiny seeds with feathery appendages, like dandelion seeds, that float through the air spreading the seeds. Wind and animals do most of the distributing.

Over time the moss accumulates, like in the above photos. But it starts out as mere tendrils. On the right side of this photo below you see threads of it, so delicate the sun shines through it.

Some creatures–bats, snakes, frogs, spiders and insects–live in the moss.

Others use it for cover.

Birds use it for nesting material.

Humans have been finding uses for Spanish moss for centuries. Clothing, rope, stuffing for pillows and mattresses, as healing teas, for binding material in construction, and more. It was exported to England in the early 19th century for upholstery stuffing, and used by car makers for the same purpose in the early 20th century.

Typically the moss was soaked in water and then dried in the sun, removing its inhabitants. Once it was fully dried it was ready to use.

Today it is primarily used as mulch for gardening, or in crafts and floral arrangements.

A plant that glows in the sun, thrives without roots, gets its nutrients from the air, and is home to a myriad of wildlife. That’s a plant to be celebrated.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Spanish moss fragment
Courtesy Univ. of Houston. uh.edu

70 thoughts on “Spanish Moss

  1. That photo of the owl in the moss is great! Being from the northern parts of the United States, Spanish Moss is not something I encounter often. It is very cool to see it draping off the trees.

    • Thank you for your warm words, Mark. We were really delighted to see the barred owl hidden in the moss, and it was fun to take a deeper look at Spanish moss, I’m happy you enjoyed it.

  2. It’s so neat! I was surprised by how prolific it is in the deep south. In CA there are places it grows in Los Lobos SP. I love walking through that grove of trees where it grows. It’s probably a different variety than the stuff in the south.

    Your bird images in the Moss are fantastic Athena, and your narrative is awesome, Jet!

  3. Lovely post, Jet! So glad to have been able to share this beautiful region with you and Athena – and love seeing how you make it come alive for your adoring fans!

  4. Up in the Queen Charlotte Islands the trees have a lot of moss hanging from them, and it looks like this Spanish moss but I can’t say for sure if it’s the same kind. Gives it a real fairytale look. Nice post, showing the uses of the moss for people and animals. I wonder if it chokes out the trees eventually. You say it doesn’t steal nutrients, but I wonder if it blocks the sun and hinder the growth of the tree somehow. Don’t know. Just wondering.

    • We have what looks like moss on the Pacific coast, but technically it is not Spanish Moss, Anneli, as you astutely wondered. The Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides, occurs only in the U.S. South and tropical Americas. Here in No. Calif. we have lichens, probably where you are too. You also wondered about it hindering the tree’s light. Yes, if it gets too thick it can be a hindrance to sunlight penetration. Great to have you stop by, thank you.

    • It makes me smile that you picked out this sentence, pc, because it stuck in my head too. So many times I heard it from various guides. It’s memorable, just like the plant. Always a joy to have you stop by, my friend, thank you.

    • I am delighted you found the Spanish Moss interesting, Val. It is so prevalent there in SE Georgia. I looked up into the trees so much there, continually enchanted by it, that when I got home to CA I was still in the habit of looking up into the trees for it. Warm thanks and smiles, Val.

  5. Got to experience that moss in Georgia as well (along with some places in Texas etc). Although not a parasite, always wondered if the weight or eclipsing the sunlight had a negative impact on the tree itself. Thanks for the background on this rather intriguing plant.

    • Great that you have seen and experienced the Spanish Moss phenomena in the southern U.S., Brian, and found it intriguing. To answer your question, I have read that if it gets thick enough it can prevent the sun’s penetration, but that it isn’t really much of a problem; haven’t read about the weight of it being a problem one way or another. Thanks so much for your visit.

  6. I’ve not seen Spanish Moss although we do have lichens of a similar appearance. Athena’s pictures are wonderful examples of its beauty and, in some cases, haunting appearance like in Harris Neck. LOve the shot with the Barred Owl.

    • If you are ever in the American South you will have the chance to see Spanish Moss firsthand, Steve. And given your interest in nature and your photography talents, I am thinking you will find it as enchanting as we did, especially the way sun lights it up, and be taking loads of photos. For that shot with the Barred Owl, we were floating in a boat in a swamp, and had the opportunity to see the same individual several times. Athena got many great photos and it came out of the moss a bit more and turned around for us, so, more of that beautiful owl will appear in future posts. My warmest thanks.

  7. You’ve put together a good summary of Spanish moss.

    According to a Florida website, “The Native American name for this plant translated to ‘tree beard’. The plant reminded the French settlers of the beards of the Spanish conquistadors, so they called it ‘Spanish Beard’. The name ‘Spanish moss’ was derived from this.” I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s plausible. It’s also the case that Spanish moss grows extensively in some places that Spaniards explored and settled.

  8. Spanish moss is a common sight here in south Florida. What’s so not common are it’s various uses.
    Like mulch for instance, wow, that is fantastic! Don’t want to tell you what I wind up doing with all
    the extra moss found around here! It’s not saved, but it will be now, saved and used! Thank you Jet!

    • I’m chuckling from your comment, Eddie. As I was dipping into lots of sites for researching the Spanish Moss, I did find a gardener who told of her neighbors who threw it out, and her efforts at retrieving their refuse. So I did understand some folks throw it out. But your little confession here is endearing and has me smiling, my friend. My warmest thanks for your visit today, dear Eddie.

      • Having seen how prolific the moss is, I imagine it can get overpowering in the garden. Also, I have read when it hits the ground the chiggers jump in, which I am sure is not the most pleasant thing for some folks. (I suffer from chigger bites there, which fortunately we do not have where I live.) Sending my best to you, Eddie, for a pleasant weekend for you and your new pup.

    • Thanks so very much, Sylvia, for stopping by. I’m happy you enjoyed the Spanish Moss post. It is always really special to see an owl, and it was a great thrill that the owl stayed still and it was daylight so that Athena could get some nice photos of it.

  9. Fascinating piece of writing. In Mauritius 🇲🇺, my mum has Spanish Moss hanging all over the place- fence to cover the gaps, a dried up branch,which now looks exotic and nearly everywhere.

  10. Have to agree with some of the previous comments. The owl is truly precious! Seems we have some stuff that’s similar to this Spanish Moss here in the PNW, but I’ve never teased out the difference/similarities. Athena’s images are fantastic and your text educational as well. Too bad about the chiggers! (Yuck! 😠)

    • Always a delight to have you stop by, Gunta, and I’m really glad you enjoyed the Spanish Moss post and subsequent comments. I am one of those people who seem to get chiggers readily, and boy do they ever itch. My ankles are always covered with bites until I get home. So I agree with your “yuck” on the chiggers. lol. Many thanks, my friend.

  11. Spanish moss has been a familiar part of my life since childhood, when I visited a great-aunt in Louisiana. We kids always slept in a screened porch at the back of her house, with mattresses and pillows stuffed with moss. A bayou dweller gave me a tip years later that may explain why we never encountered chiggers or other creatures in the stuff. She said that, if you’re going to collect it, never, ever bring home any that has touched the ground. Some people freeze it before use, just to be sure — or put smaller portions in the microwave.

    In Louisiana, a mixture of Spanish moss and mud was an integral part of Cajun building construction. Called bousillage, the mixture of clay and moss (or sometimes straw) is most often used for the exterior walls of wooden buildings.

    • It’s wonderful that you brought this up, Linda. I came across lots of conflict on the topic of chiggers in Spanish moss in my research for this post, learning that it is not the moss that has the chiggers, which is what many people thought for a long time. It’s merely that chiggers get in the moss when it’s on the ground…exactly what you’re saying here. Great to hear about the screened porch at your great aunt’s house in LA and the Cajun building construction. Thanks so very much for your contribution, Linda.

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