Spanish Moss, Gray Beard of the South
You may have noticed it. Spanish moss—that picturesque symbol of the South. A gray tangled mass, it hangs limp over a steaming bayou—or flutters from a wire fence—or drips on your head after a rainstorm.
Some like Doris Hoover of Maine, might at their first sight of it, say, “Ooh, it’s creepy and scary like Halloween.”
But now that she’s lived here awhile, she says, “I got used to it. I actually find it beautiful, or enchanting.”
As do the natives.
They are proud of their Spanish moss. In fact, they also recognize that Tillandsia usneoides of the family Bromeliaceae, known locally as moss, and cousin to pineapples, is no threat to trees. This epiphyte, or air plant, gets its nutrition from the sun, air and rain. In the states it is found from Florida to Texas, or USDA zones 8-11.
Clumps of moss may land on your lawn. Don’t toss them out. They’ll make great mulch. Historically, the Houma Indian culture used moss to treat fever and chills. Enslaved Africans made it into tea to treat diabetes and asthma.
Mary Hart, an 85-year-old Florida native, recalls her Ocklawaha youth. In the 40s and 50s, “boys would take things like a fishing pole and put it up in the tree and wrap the moss around it to pull it down. I’ve seen them do that. They would sell it. They pulled the moss out of the oak trees in my yard. You know how people pick up tin cans now and sell them? Back then they’d say,’ Let’s go pull the moss out of the trees and sell it.’ This way anybody could make a little money.”
When sold, the moss was put to use in stuffing mattresses or upholstering chairs and sofas, and even seats in automobiles.
Even today, moss is handy in flower arranging, home insulation, packing, or for draping over fences for privacy.
Some arborists maintain that moss could block sunlight for photosynthesis. If moss-control is a concern, it can indeed be sprayed with copper sulfate or other chemicals. But it will grow back. Please don’t try this yourself, call a professional.
Hart does not worry about photosynthesis and sun-blocking.
“We leave moss in the trees because it’s not too much, and nature lets it drop when it’s supposed to. We believe in nature. Nature cleans the earth itself. Some people believe it strangles the trees and they have it removed. If that happened, we would have it removed. But we haven’t seen that. Those of us who think it’s beautiful, we don’t bother it,” she said.
Old trees can die with moss still in them, but moss doesn’t kill the trees.
Be aware that critters such as birds, lizards, snakes and insects such as red-bugs can make their home in the moss. Concerning the red-bugs, don’t be afraid to touch the moss. It’s safe. Use common sense. Picture the way kids would play, draping the moss in their hair and on their arms. Avoid that. We got red bugs when I was a kid. I remember Mama treating us with dabs of Kerosene. Now we have other treatments.
If you do plan to use moss for arts and crafts there is a link below to treat moss safely and kill off the bugs. And please, don’t waste money to buy moss. Pick it off the ground. The stuff in the store is treated with chemicals.
Moss can be useful and fun, but do think twice before draping it over your head like Big Foot or making that home-made Gilly-suit!
Jennifer Odom is an avid gardener and an Ocala-based author. Her latest novel “Girl with a Black Soul” was recently released. For information visit jenniferodom.com