By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension Director
A tinge of gray can cause conflicting emotions. If an optimistic perspective is taken the color may indicate maturity, experience and worldliness.
A pessimistic viewpoint has the tone reflecting obsolescence or irrelevance, and possibly predatory foreboding depending on the setting. Either way, this shade immediately says something to the observer
Pervasive Spanish moss which hangs effortlessly above north Florida with its dull steel hue is overtly benign but a vaguely menacing resident. The fog-like layers obscure details, object and inhabitants from view.
With the shape shifting ability of a lava lamp, Spanish moss can literally be what the beholder’s imagination conjures. A little moonlight and malevolence only serve to intensify the possibilities.
Gothic drama aside, Spanish moss is a common site in Wakulla County with a long and storied history. In years past this air plant has been viewed as a resource, but is presently considered a pest.
The plant became known as Spanish moss in popular lore because it resembled the long grey beards of conquistadors. These explorers trudged through the new world’s regions under the most primitive conditions. Shaving was a nonessential activity for these inquisitive souls, hence the long scraggly beards.
Spanish moss’ scientific name (Tillandsia usneiodes), 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 ornamental bromeliads.
In the days before Styrofoam peanuts and synthetic padding, Spanish moss was gathered commercially for a variety of uses. It served as a readily available packing material for delicate objects such as pottery, china, and glassware.
It was a handy and popular stuffing for farmers seeking to plump up a scarecrow. It fit the farm budget, lasted through the season and was easily replaced when dried out.
In frontier Florida, Spanish moss was the padding of choice for pillows and mattresses. It was comfortable by contemporary standards and accessible to anyone with the initiative to reach it.
It was common knowledge this plant could be the home of many creatures. 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.
Prior to the arrival of European explorers, the indigenous peoples used Spanish moss to strengthen the clay in some pottery objects. The fibrous strands of the plant provided a sturdy reinforcement webbing.
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. The dying tree’s thinning canopy allows more light to reach the moss, which promotes more growth of the moss.
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 to foliage, but its primary use of the tree is only for support. Occasionally branches with moss may break under the weight, especially after rain.
Spanish moss is not a big problem for healthy trees, which grow faster than the moss. Moss removal, if desired, must be done manually as there is no selective herbicide to kill the moss and leave the trees unharmed.
This native gray enhancement to the overall landscape adds to the area’s character and charm. Everything else is left to the imagination of the observer.