Spanish Moss Was Used for Bedding, Packing
Les Harrison is the Wakulla County Extension Director.
Thanksgiving holiday is a reminder of primitive days when life, even here is Wakulla County, was not as pleasant as today. Basic needs, along with the luxuries, of contemporary living are accessed through a quick visit to local shops and big box retailers.
Rare today is the person who takes more than a small fraction of resources necessary for their existence from the land. As recently as the early 20th Century there were residents who depended upon the bounty of the land to sustain them with most, if not all, of the key components of life.
Hunting provided the meat, including turkeys which are long associated with this holiday, to the hardy residents. Even if refrigerators had been available, it is doubtful turkey sandwiches would have been on the following day’s menu.
There were, however, other needs for which the land offered resources. In the days before Styrofoam peanuts and synthetic padding, Spanish Moss was gathered for a variety of uses.
Spanish moss’ scientific name, usneoides, means resembling Usnea, the beard lichen. Appearances aside, Spanish moss is not biologically related to lichens or other mosses. It is in the same plant family as the colorful and popular air plants, bromeliads.
The plant became known as Spanish Moss because it resembled the long grey beards of conquistadors. These explorers trudged through the new world’s regions under the most grueling conditions long before English speaking settlers arrived.
Shaving for these fortune hunters was a nonessential activity, hence the long beards and the comparison to the moss.
Prior to the arrival of European explorers, the indigenous peoples used Spanish moss to reinforce some pottery objects. The fiber strands of the plant provided a sturdy reinforcement webbing for clay to bond on.
In frontier Florida, Spanish moss became the padding of choice for some pillows and mattresses. It was comfortable by contemporary standards and accessible to anyone who could reach it.
It was quickly evident this plant could be the home of many small creatures with a taste for flesh. A quick dunk into boiling water would neutralize any potential for insect problems, especially chiggers.
Chiggers, or red bugs as they are sometimes known, will burrow into the skin of anyone who has the bad luck be exposed to contact. The resulting infestation leaves red whelps and an unending itch.
As the region became settled, it served as a readily available packing material for delicate objects such as pottery, china, and glassware.
It was also a handy and popular stuffing for farmers seeking to plump up a scarecrow. It fit the farm budget and gave the children another chore.
In the 21st Century Spanish moss has the reputation as a tree killer. The impression it kills trees may originate from the plant establishing itself on trees already in decline.
Spanish moss is covered with permeable scales which catch moisture and nutrients from the air. It has no roots but entangles itself to the host tree by means of long scaly stems.
The moss’ bulk may block some sunlight but it uses the tree only for support. Occasionally branches with moss may break under the weight, especially after rain.
Relaxing in front of a televised football game after Thanksgiving dinner would be very different if upholstery were stuffed with Spanish moss. It is doubtful anyone could fall asleep thinking about the redbugs.