One of the most familiar sights of the Deep South in the USA is the presence of Spanish moss (tillandsia usneoides) on trees. Those gray, hairlike strands dangling from countless branches, creating an almost surreal atmosphere.
The term ‘moss’, in floriography, represents the sentiment of maternal love. Spanish moss comes in different varieties, has different uses, is easy to grow and has interesting characteristics. Read on to discover truths about it and how to grow it in your own garden.
Facts About Spanish Moss
It’s more appropriately called ‘tree hair’ or ‘itla-okla’ by native American tribes and it’s an epiphyte. This means that it needs other trees to thrive, but unlike parasites, it doesn’t derive their nutrients. Instead, it gets its moisture and nutrients through sunlight, rain, dust, fog, and the air whilst hanging on trees.
The plant is made up of slim stems with scaled leaves that grow to create a hanging structure on a tree. Although it produces brown, green, or yellow flowers, they are difficult to spot.
This tree hair isn’t just curious to look at, it also has some fascinating facts.
What You Might Not Know About Spanish Moss
Is Spanish moss actually moss?
Does it come from Spain?
Despite its name, Spanish moss is native to the American continent. It can be found in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and parts of southern USA.
Where can you find it in these regions?
It thrives in tropical swampland areas where there’s lots of moisture. In the United States, it can be found from Virginia to Texas.
How did it get its name?
The name ‘Spanish moss’ was given by French explorers. It’s said that they were inspired by the impressive beards of conquistadors.
How does it absorb water?
Small gray scales are found all over these plants. These are able to retain moisture before it’s consumed by the plants. Its tissues are also able to keep water stored up for when dry periods occur.
What causes Spanish moss to grow on trees?
It disperses itself far and wide through festoons – tiny pieces that latch onto a supporting frame. Once these festoons land on suitable anchorage such as trees, they begin to develop into hair that is used to hang on, or decorate, a tree.
Spanish Moss Varieties
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 variations in the species.
|Common Name||Origin||Leaves Characteristics||Flower Color||Visual Identification|
|Maurice’s Robusta||Mexico||Thick leaves Gray-green color||Yellow or yellow-green hue|
|Odin’s Genuina||Guatemala & Mexico||Very fine leaves Silver color||Yellowish-brown|
|Silver Ghost||Paraguay||Fine leaves Greenish-gray color||Greenish|
|Spanish Gold||South America||Slender leaves Gray-green color||Yellow|
|Nezley||Cross-pollinated usneoides with mallemontii||Silver||Light purple|
|Old Man’s Gold||Cross-pollinated usneoides with crocata||Silvery-green||Yellow|
What is Spanish Moss Good for?
Spanish moss serves different purposes for different creatures:
- It’s used to build nests for birds and form breeding grounds for small animals and insects.
- Its strands allow bats to perch on it in the daytime before they take flight at night.
- It protects various animals such as lizards, frogs, chiggers, and snakes.
- Butterflies can rest in it in the evening.
As for humans, we use it more for ornamental and landscaping reasons than anything else. Commercially, Spanish moss is used in arts and crafts and as a bedding for flower gardens.
Is Spanish Moss Harmful to Humans?
There aren’t many pests that affect it because it has little nutritional value. However, many creatures like to call this plant their home. Because of this, you must be careful when harvesting Spanish moss. Wear gloves and layers to protect your skin.
Pests and Diseases of Spanish Moss
It’s a hardy plant and is not susceptible to disease. It 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 might be stunted.
“Spanish moss should be heated through in the oven for at least half an hour before use to kill fungus, mold or pests. When used in landscaping for mulching, skip the heating but be careful of snakes when harvesting and spreading it.” –Flora Lawn
How To Cultivate and Care for Spanish Moss
Ideal Growing Conditions
The biggest requirement needed as an air 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 it is to make sure that it gets morning and evening sun. It also needs good air circulation, as it receives all of its nutrients from the air.
When growing it outdoors, keep it away from hot windows or walls. It may absorb the heat and dry out or even burn.
Ensure that it has something to grow on, indoors, such as driftwood, or other decorative items. Make sure to place it near a window—but not where it’s exposed to direct sunlight during the summer.
Planting: How to Start Spanish Moss
From Other Spanish Moss
The easiest way to plant Spanish moss in your garden is to propagate it through division. This separates the different side shoots and plantlets.
If you live in the Deep South of America it should be easy to find one in the wild to take a cutting from. If not, you can purchase live moss from specialty stores or online.
To cultivate it from seeds is a slow process requiring a lot of patience. It can often 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 seeds germinate, but once they do, too much humidity may sometimes cause the sprouts to rot.
If you are growing Spanish moss indoors, then humidity is a key factor in its care in this environment, too. As when growing it outdoors, make sure to water Spanish moss on all sides to keep it from drying out.
Keeping Spanish Moss Alive
When watering, make sure to use purified, distilled, or rainwater. Do not use chlorinated water.
Keep your moss moist as much as possible – 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 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 it 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. As 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 nutrients to get from the air. Use a high-phosphorus fertilizer mixed at half the usual strength.
To learn more about Spanish moss, check out this related information:
- Balcony Web writes about Spanish Moss and how to care for it.
- Parade Magazine explores gardening Spanish moss indoors and outdoors.
- SFGate indicates in detail how to prepare Spanish moss for indoor use.
- Video by Brad’s Greenhouse and Gardening on YouTube