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Weekly “What is it?”: Spanish Moss

Spanish moss hanging from a live oak tree. This epiphyte does not harm its host tree. Photo credit: Sydney Park Brown, UF IFAS Extension

Movies set in the deep South often start with sweeping views of ancient live oak or cypress trees draped with Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides). The mysterious-looking plant lends a haunting feel to a landscape. But believe it or not, this botanical symbol of the south has more in common with the tropics—specifically, the pineapple. Both are bromeliads, and under a microscope you can see Spanish moss shares the same scale-like structure as pineapples. These scales, called trichomes, are an adaptation that allows the plants to capture and hold water. This helps Spanish moss function as an epiphyte, or air plant, a rootless species that picks up water from the air and nutrients leached from the large trees in which they reside.

With its stringy, hairlike structure, Spanish moss has taken on many nicknames over the years–including “tree hair” and “Spanish beard.” Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

On a tour of old homes in historic Pensacola, I learned Spanish moss is also responsible for half of the phrase, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite!” In earlier colonial days—before the invention of box springs—mattresses were held up by a crisscrossed system of ropes, which could be tightened from the sides of a bed. Mattresses were often stuffed with Spanish moss, which is a favorite hideout for chiggers (aka redbugs). Before bed, a parent might tighten up the bed support ropes and hope their child didn’t spend the night falling victim to the itchy bites of chiggers nestled in the mattress padding. Insects aren’t the only organisms that make their homes in Spanish moss—several species of bats, lizards, and birds use it for shelter as well. Spanish moss should be a welcome addition to any landscape–it does not harm its host tree, and provides aesthetic interest and wildlife habitat at the same time.