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Spanish Moss is not a moss

A beautiful early spring landscape, indeed, and it ain't Ohio. A project had me dipping back into the photo files, and I ran across this image from my trip to South Carolina last April. While down south, I made a point of photographing Spanish Moss, Tillandsia usneoides, one of the classic botanical symbols of the south.

I nearly sped by a gorgeous old cemetery on my way to Congaree National Park, but a stand of behemoth oaks and other trees festooned with Spanish Moss made me hit the brakes. Early morning sunshine and the clear blue ether made the photo ops that much better.

You just can't miss the hanging draperies of this plant; it's as if the trees wear grizzled beards. The name is a misnomer, though. Spanish Moss is not a moss at all - it is a monocotyledonous flowering plant. A bromeliad, to be specific. It actually looks more like a lichen than a moss, as suggested by the specific epithet of its scientific name: usneoides. When you see a scientific name with the epithet appended with an "oides" ending, it means "resembles". So, in the case of Spanish Moss, usneoides means "resembles Usnea", and Usnea is a genus of beard lichens.

But the pendant growths of Spanish Moss are air plants, and derive their nutrients from rain and air, and perhaps minerals leached from the host plant. As might be expected from such an obvious plant, it has garnered a fair share of attention. Balladeer Gordon Lightfoot - of Edmund Fitzgerald fame - wrote a tune entitled "Spanish Moss". So did the punk band Against Me!, and you can hear their song Spanish Moss, HERE. As an interesting automotive footnote, Spanish Moss was used widely in the early 1900's to stuff the seats of automobiles.

As might be expected of a plant that produces copious biomass, certain critters are strongly associated with Spanish Moss. A species of jumping spider, Pelegrina tillandsiae, is said to only inhabit this plant, and bats, snakes, insects and who knows what all lurks in its tangled masses. The gorgeous songbird above, the Northern Parula, is strongly associated with Spanish Moss and this warbler typically makes its nest in the plant, at least where the two species overlap.

Later on the same day that I made the first three photos, I came across this Northern Parula foraging in close proximity to Spanish Moss and couldn't resist trying to get both species in the same capture.

For me, one of the highlights of heading into the Deep South is the trees tangled in this interesting member of the Bromeliad family.


Anonymous said…
Hi Jim. Your interesting note auto seats being stuffed with Spanish moss - my late father once related a 1930's depression story to me. He and a couple other family members in their youth worked picking Spanish moss in Fl for auto supply to help their families make ends meet. Love all of your knowledge about natural world. Thanks for your posts. Gary Wayne

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