French and Spanish explorers gave Spanish moss its name. Native Americans called the plant Itla-okla, which meant “tree hair.” But amazingly, Spanish moss does not harm trees or weigh down branches of healthy trees. It is simply one of the most superb plants the South has to offer.
What is Spanish Moss?
Spanish moss is an epiphyte, or an “air plant”. An epiphyte is a plant that grows on another plant without directly gaining nourishment from it. Spanish moss receives all of its nutrients and moisture from the air and is not considered a parasite to the tree. It only uses the tree for support.
Spanish moss is an air plant. Spanish moss receives all its nutrients from air, rain, and animal fecal. Animal fecal is loaded with nitrogen, which helps most plants thrive. Its roots do not invade the tree bark it lives on, and it does not steal the tree’s resources.
Where Does Spanish Moss Come From?
Spanish moss, fortunately, is native to the Americas. It is a wonderful creation of flora. Spanish moss does no harm. It is beautiful, albeit sometimes haunting, and so useful.
Spanish moss is native to Mexico, Central America, South America, the southeastern United States, and the Caribbean islands. Spanish moss thrives best in a tropical environment. Spanish moss grows from Texas to Virginia and in the southeastern states bordering the Gulf Coast shoreline.
Why Do They Call it Spanish Moss?
The French thought that the Spanish conquistador’s long beards looked like the Spanish moss. The French called this plant Barbe Espagnol, or “Spanish beard.” The Spaniards reversed the French rhetoric by calling the plant Cabello Francés, or “French hair.” The French moniker won out, and as time went by, the Spanish beard evolved into Spanish moss.
The French and Spanish waged a word salad war over the European name for this plant. This could be because the French took over Spanish territory. The histories of settling the Americas with both countries took several centuries. The Spanish explored the Americas first; then came the French.
However, their two histories of exploring the Americas were separated by eras. As the Spanish focused on the southern U.S., Mexico, Central America, and South America, they eventually lost their hold on the southeastern U.S., but never California.
When the Spanish valued land resources more south of today’s U.S., the French moved in with fur trapping enterprises in territories the Spanish had left behind for the extremely valuable beaver fur, along with other animal furs. But, the beaver fur was the most profitable. So the French ended with the last laugh.
Why Should You Not Touch Spanish Moss?
Spanish moss hosts one of the South’s most annoying summer pests. Southeastern states experience a whole bunch of pesky summer insects, and the ones that Spanish moss hosts become a long-lasting pest if they get under your skin.
Chiggers are the reason you should not touch Spanish moss. Good news, however; only when Spanish moss is lying on the ground do chiggers invade its delicate fibers. Chiggers will get on you, bury into your skin, and cause you to itch uncontrollably. But, chiggers cannot climb trees.
Is Spanish Moss Harmful to Humans?
If you get chiggers, you must seal the pores of your skin where they are living to smother chiggers so they cannot breathe in order to stop the madness of the itch. Many people in the south still use an old remedy. Paint the area on your skin invaded by chiggers with nail polish.
No, Spanish moss is not harmful to humans. Spanish moss is only harmful if you touch it on the ground, and then only if you are in a chigger territory. Chiggers will shortly die if you cut off their air supply.
Your itching will cease and desist as soon as they do go to their maker. Also, if you are in chigger territory, coat your boots or shoes with sulfur powder. Chiggers do not tolerate sulfur one bit. Sulfur works on chiggers by disrupting their metabolism. Sulfur is an effective miticide against chiggers.
Should You Remove Spanish Moss?
What is not killing your trees? Spanish moss is not killing your tree or trees. It is a highly valued agroecological native plant that can only benefit your land; unless you dislike how it looks, or bats, or boll weevils, or chiggers. Rat snakes are harmless.
No, you should not remove Spanish moss. People use Spanish moss to drape their fences for privacy and decoration. If you are a cotton farmer, you may not like the boll weevils who like this plant. Other than that, Spanish moss can only enhance your life and your property.
Spanish moss will not grow in polluted areas. It is extremely sensitive to air pollution. Spanish moss does not grow at all in metroplexes where major air pollution is present.
Why Does Spanish Moss Grow on Older Trees?
Spanish moss receives nutrients from older trees that shed dead cells. This is why Spanish moss is primarily seen thriving on mature, slower growing trees.
What Is Spanish Moss Good For?
Spanish moss is a little bit like the industrial hemp plant for its many uses. Today its uses are not as valuable as industrial hemp, but Spanish moss holds its own place in history and is relevant today.
Manufacturers used Spanish moss until the 1960s. It was collected and used for all kinds of items people purchased, like stuffing for car seats and furniture. Because moths are not drawn to upholstering stuffed with Spanish moss, manufacturers preferred using Spanish moss over wool.
Synthetic materials came into full force in the 1960s Remember polyester clothing? The synthetic revolution rendered Spanish moss obsolete in modern times. Native Americans used Spanish moss for bedding. They handcrafted their clothes by spinning its inner black core and using it as thread when cloth material was not available.
Its inner core begins as its yellow stem in young Spanish moss shoots, but as this plant ages, its core turns black. The core is the main stem of Spanish moss. The Native Americans, in turn, taught the European explorers how to use Spanish moss. Spanish moss was highly useful and effective during the Civil War in the Confederate States.
Spanish moss is abundant in the South for sure. The Confederate cavalry adopted the use of woven Spanish moss blankets and saddle pads for their horses and pack animals. Spanish moss blankets and saddle pads were durable, waterproof, did not chafe the animals, allowed airflow, and increased the evaporation of the animal’s sweat.
Spanish moss’s history goes back 3,000 years that we know of. Ancient Native Americans used it to create fire-tempered pottery. The moss burned away when firing the pottery, but the unique design of its fibers remained evident in the finished product.
Pioneers in Spanish moss territories used it to protect dugout canoes and cement. Spanish moss is a natural sponge. They used it as a covering to keep things moist and from drying out too fast while they were working on their projects. Spanish moss is an excellent choice for making mulch. If you boil it in water, you can use it for a superb fertilizer because of its nitrogen content.
The Houma and the Koasati Tribes of present day Louisiana use Spanish moss to construct and decorate small dolls. Spanish moss is still used today for producing lids for cooking pots, emergency blankets, insulation mixed with clay to strengthen plaster, fiber woven into floor mats, string, rope, and sacks.
Birds and Animals Like Spanish Moss
Warblers and orioles especially, among other feathered species, love Spanish moss for building their nests. We know rat snakes and bats call Spanish moss their homes. Boll weevils, the disdain of southern cotton farmers, love it, but moths loathe it.
What Does Spanish Moss Look Like?
Spanish moss has small, scale-like leaves that allow it to grab onto tree bark without damaging it. Spanish moss uses tiny scales on its leaves and its curved structure to cling to its host tree.
Spanish moss appears as thick, drooping, gray/green, hairy-like apparitions hanging from grand trees in its regions. Many a camping ghost story has been told under trees supporting Spanish moss. It dangles from tree limbs, gulping moisture from only pure air.