Thursday, December 17, 2015

Spanish Moss

Bearded Tree
Last week we took a quick trip to Gainesville (my first since we moved) and I was hit with the realization that Athens does not have Spanish Moss! Driving down I-75 and into Florida, we passed some magic line where the vegetation changed and then there were Saw Palmettos and Palm Trees. Suddenly Spanish Moss Draped Bald Cypress and Live Oak trees appeared on both sides of the road. I'm not sure I had thought about the presence or absence of Spanish Moss in Athens much before last week, but there it was. This is not to say that Spanish Moss doesn't grow in Georgia. It does. Think Okeefenokee Swamp. And certainly no picture of Savannah is complete without Oak-lined boulevards, draped with the gray-green moss. But after doing a little research I learned that Spanish Moss prefers to live in the warm, humid Coastal Plain, which covers pretty much all of Florida and the coastal regions of the Southeastern US from Texas up to about the Carolinas and down into Central and South America all the way to Argentina. Athens, however, though very close, is located in the cooler, drier Piedmont region, and therefore, no Spanish Moss for us. Spanish Moss also likes to grow on Live Oak and Bald Cypress, which we don't really have up here in the Piedmont, either.

Mossy Campground at Paynes Prairie

Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is an interesting, and often misunderstood plant. Some people think that it looks creepy, that it kills trees and that it is full of bugs. None of this is true. It is not a moss, nor is it Spanish, but is actually a type of Bromeliad, related to Pineapple. Spanish Moss is not a parasite and does not harm the trees it lives in, unless the clumps get too big and heavy with rain and pull down a weak branch. Spanish Moss is an epiphyte (an "air plant") with no roots, that hangs in long drooping chains from the tops of trees, taking its moisture and nutrients from the humid air and rain. Early French explorers called the plant "Spanish Beard" to insult their rivals. In turn, the Spanish called it "French Beard". Reminds me of the French and English knights in Monty Python.

Spanish Beard
I think Spanish Moss is beautiful, soft and gray, hanging down and waving in the wind. I enjoy watching large clumps tear off and fall softly to the ground in a light breeze. Sunlight shining through gray curtain is very pretty. Spanish Moss blooms in the springtime with tiny flowers. It reproduces from seeds or grows from broken-off sections. When the plants die, the gray-green scaly outer layer sloughs away leaving the thread-like fibers that people have used for millennia to fashion into cordage or cloth and to temper clay pottery. The fiber was also used in the past to fill cushions for car seats, for horse blankets and was even made into pads for evaporative "swamp" coolers used out west. Spanish Moss was used medicinally as a tea for fevers and other ailments. Click here for a link to an article about a woman in Tampa, Florida who is keeping the dying art of Spanish Moss weaving alive.

Wet Barred Owl Drying in the Spanish Moss

Spanish Moss Flower

Spanish Moss Fiber

I have been told by reliable sources that Spanish Moss does not harbor chiggers. I've never seen "red bugs" in the moss and haven't had any trouble with them, though I have been run into chiggers in grass many times. I know their itch all too well! But there are still people who insist that they've gotten chiggers from Spanish Moss, so I'll let them keep thinking it. Maybe the moss was on the ground. Many other kinds of animals from bats to birds to snakes to spiders make their homes in Spanish Moss. It makes good nesting material, too.

Camouflaged Spider in Spanish Moss 

Carolina Wrens use Spanish Moss to make a soft nest
So after so many years of taking Spanish Moss for granted, now that we've moved away from Florida, Spanish Moss has a new, distinctively "Southern" look to me, more southern even than my home in Georgia! It evokes images of bayous and swamps, gators and wading birds, steamy summer days and the slow droning buzz of cicadas. Spanish Moss means exotic travel and adventure, which is quite an interesting change.

Images of the South

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