If you live in or have ever visited parts of the Deep South, you will likely be familiar with the gray, hairlike strands dangling from many of the trees. This eerie plant is Spanish moss. Known as “itla-okla,” or “tree hair” by indigenous Americans, Spanish moss grows on other trees to thrive. Despite its need for a host, Spanish moss is not a parasite—it is an epiphyte. The plant does not send roots into the host tree and it does not draw nutrients from the tree. Learn more about air plants.
Despite its name, Spanish moss is neither Spanish nor moss; Spanish moss is native to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and parts of the southern United States from Texas to Virginia. It is considered a flowering plant, a member of the same family as pineapples and succulents. The plant is made up of slim stems with scaled leaves that grow to create a hanging structure. Although the plant produces brown, green, or yellow flowers, they are difficult to spot.
Growing Conditions for Spanish Moss
The biggest requirement Spanish moss needs in order to grow as an aerial plant is a tree or shrub to grow from. Spanish moss also needs the warm humidity of a tropical or subtropical climate to thrive. Because of its climate preferences, Spanish moss grows best in zones seven through 11. It needs bright but not direct sunlight.
The best way to accommodate Spanish moss is to make sure that it gets morning and evening sun. The plant also needs good air circulation, as it receives all of its nutrients from the air. When growing Spanish moss, make sure to keep it away from hot windows or walls, as the plant may absorb the heat and dry out or even burn.
When growing Spanish moss indoors, make sure that it has something to grow on, such as driftwood, rocks, or other decorative items. Make sure to place Spanish moss near a window—but not where it will be exposed to direct sunlight during the summer. Like outdoor Spanish moss, growing the plant too close to a hot window or wall will have negative effects on the plant’s growth.
How to Start Spanish Moss
The easiest way to plant Spanish moss in your garden is to propagate it through division, separating the different side shoots and plantlets. If you live in the Deep South or in Spanish moss’s other native areas, it should be easy to find a plant in the wild to take a cutting from. If not, you can purchase live Spanish moss from specialty stores or online.
To grow Spanish moss from seeds is a slow process requiring a lot of patience. It can take months for the Spanish moss to grow a single centimeter. You can sow Spanish moss seeds in a substrate with good drainage and put them in a sunny windowsill so they can grow. Humidity will help the seeds germinate, but once they are germinated, too much humidity may cause the sprouts to rot.
Care of Spanish Moss
When watering Spanish moss, make sure to use purified, distilled, or rainwater. Do not use chlorinated water. Keep Spanish moss moist as much as possible, so mist the plant whenever it is dry. Avoid misting if the plant is already damp, as too much moisture is not good for the plant either.
Humidity is also very important for the Spanish moss plant’s survival as an outdoor plant. To keep it from drying out, make sure to water it on all sides. Because the plant uses itself as fertilizer, it does not typically need to be fertilized. However, if the plant looks discolored or is growing poorly, spray it with a compost tea made with one part compost and one part water.
If you are growing Spanish moss indoors, then humidity is a key factor in its care in this environment, too. Like when growing the plant outdoors, make sure to water it on all sides to keep it from drying out. Indoors, these plants might need a little extra help, as there are fewer available nutrients to get from the air. Use a high-phosphorus fertilizer mixed at half the usual strength.
Pests and Diseases of Spanish Moss
There aren’t many pests that affect Spanish moss because it has little nutritional value for them. However, many creatures like to call this plant their home. Some of these creatures include rat snakes, bats, jumping spiders, and chiggers. Because of this, you must be careful when harvesting Spanish moss. Wear gloves and layers to protect your skin.
Spanish moss is a hardy plant and is not susceptible to disease. Spanish moss itself only becomes a problem for other plants if it grows thick enough to block the leaves of the host plant. If this happens, then the growth of the host plant might be stunted.
Harvesting Spanish Moss for Decoration
Spanish moss cannot be used for eating by people or animals, as it has essentially no nutritional value. Commercially, Spanish moss is used in arts and crafts and as a bedding for flower gardens. To harvest your own Spanish moss, dress in protective clothing and pull the Spanish moss down from the tree.
Spread the strands apart, pick any visible debris out, and wash with hot, soapy water. Rinse all the soapy water away from the strands, and double-check for debris. Allow the Spanish moss to dry completely before using it in plant beds or hanging it as a decoration in your home.
Spanish Moss Varieties to Grow in Your Home Garden
There are several types of Spanish moss and its hybrids that do well in home gardens. The following varieties are some of the more popular ones.
Maurice’s Robusta : This variety of Spanish moss has leaves that are thicker than the following varieties. It is a grayish-green color, though it tends to be more gray unless freshly watered. The flowers range from yellow to yellowish-green.
Odin’s Genuina: This unique variety of Spanish moss is originally from Guatemala and Mexico. It has very fine silver leaves and yellowish-brown flowers.
Silver Ghost: This species is native to Paraguay. Its leaves are fine, smooth tendrils that are a greenish-gray color. The flowers are also greenish.
Tight and Curly: Like its name, this variety of Spanish moss has slim silver leaves that are tightly curled. This type of Spanish moss can most often be found in California.
To learn more about growing Spanish moss, check out this video by Brad’s Greenhouse and Gardening.
Author Saffyre Falkenberg began gardening with her grandmother as a child in Southern California. She continues to keep plants in her apartment in Texas and has a special love for succulents.
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