The first thing I learned about Spanish moss is that it has many slightly different species and just as many Latin names: Tillandsia, Renealmia and Pendropogon, all followed by usneoides. (Carl Linnaeus was so enamored with giving names to plants that he changed his own name from Linne to the Latinized version we use now.)
This is ironic because the common name, Spanish moss, describes a plant that is neither Spanish nor a moss. The casual name for it is grandpa’s beard, which at least describes what it looks like. Its thin, twirling, viney strands have alternate tiny curved leaves that absorb rainwater and minerals as it hangs in long hanks over its host tree’s limbs. With a microscope, scales on the leaves are visible, but not to the naked eye.
It likes the nutrients it gets from the Southern oak and the bald cypress, specifically magnesium, calcium, phosphorus and potassium. But it also thrives on a green buttonwood. The bromeliad family claims to be a relative.
Grandpa’s beard refers to a folk tale titled “The Meanest Man Ever.” The short tale is about an old man that tricks the devil into giving him more life time. He wanders in the woods and catches his beard on sticky branches.
The epiphyte has no roots. It is native to the southeast part of the U.S., from Virginia downward, but it is not native to the Florida Keys. Playing a part in gothic novels gives it an exotic air.
Warm, humid air suits the shade loving plant. Infinitesimal flowers come in a myriad of shades of yellow, brown, gray and white.
The animal community finds its clumps vitally useful. It is home to the rat snake and three species of bats. It shelters jumping spiders and hundreds of other tiny insects. Humans also find it useful. In the 1900s Spanish moss was used to stuff car seats. Mattresses were filled with it. Builders used it as insulation between the studs in the wall and as mulch for a garden. Dried moss made packing material. An early air conditioner was fashioned by creating a vertical pad of moss and running hose water through it and putting a fan on the other side. The air that came through was cooled by the evaporation. Native Americans living in the south used its absorbent, antibacterial fibers for diapers and menstrual pads.
All of these uses depend on getting the fauna separated from the flora.
Spanish moss is propagated in two ways: it has small black seeds, but it also grows if a small piece gets broken off and transported by wind or a passing bird that thinks she could use it in her nest.
Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News. Her books include “Plants of Paradise,”“Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys” and “Sexy Shrubs in Sandy Soil.” This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For information about plants, visit a compilation of previous columns at keywestgardenclub.com, Robin’s Columns.