Spanish moss is a lie. I guess I'd never thought about it, because I'd never encountered this puzzling plant before. But we crossed paths for the first time when I went to Florida this semester. As it turns out, Tillandsia usneoides is neither Spanish, nor moss. It's actually a bromeliad, and it is more closely related to a pineapple than it is to any moss or lichen that it resembles. Like many other bromeliads (Bromeliaceae), it is an epiphyte or "air plant", and grows by absorbing nutrients and water from moisture in the air as it hangs form the branches of its tree cousins. It's important to note that it doesn't directly harm the trees it clings to, and doesn't take anything from the tree. But it can reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the trees leaves, or potentially break branches as water absorbed weighs them down.
|Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) blows in the southern breeze at Blue Spring State Park in Florida.|
Some fun facts about Spanish moss:
- Spanish moss has been used as a bedding and clothing material for quite some time. Henry T. Ford actually used it to stuff the seats of the Model-T. But remember, it is an air plant, so it grows by absorbing moisture from its environment. The story goes that as the seats got older, they also got firmer, eventually exploding at the seams because of the growth of the moss inside.
- It also makes great great tinder for your fire. Building a fire is only half the battle, but lighting one, particularly when it's wet, can be a different story. I found Spanish moss to be a great fire starter, as is dries out fairly easily and is very combustible. But...
- Chiggers (larval trombiculid mites, also known as redbugs) love the stuff, and commonly take up residence in Spanish moss that has fallen to the ground. If you know me, you know I didn't pull my tinder out of a tree. I got it off the ground, along with my kindling and fire fuel. That also means I got something else.