Spanish Moss is a flowering plant in the pineapple family, so it’s not a moss at all. It is an epiphyte or air plant found in damp areas near waterways or swamps because it absorbs its moisture and nutrients from the air. It is not a parasite like mistletoe and does not rob the host tree of water or nutrients. It is covered with scales or flaps on its surface which allows it to absorb moisture from the air and catch the dust particles which are needed for nutrients. These scales or flaps (also called trichomes) slow down transpiration so that the plant doesn’t dry out too quickly.
Believe it or not, Spanish Moss is a flowering plant; the yellow-green to red flowers are so small that they are nearly imperceptible. The flowers bloom in the summer, last only a few days, and emit a subtle fragrance which attracts a variety of insect pollinators. Fruit, in the form of tiny capsules, release the seeds the following winter and this dispersal is aided by delicate hairs, almost an inch long, which act as kites. These hairs are covered with tiny barbs which can anchor in the cracks of rough tree bark. The seedlings have root-like holdfasts but they never penetrate the host tree and don’t last long because the
mature plant has no roots at all. Spanish Moss reproduces more commonly by vegetative reproduction than by seed dispersal. Small broken fragments are scattered by wind, birds, and other animals and they can float on water as well. If the site is appropriate where a fragment lands, then a new plant will grow. Spanish Moss has the largest native range of any member of the pineapple family. This is due, perhaps, to strong hurricane winds which transport it great distances coupled with its ability to grow to full size from a small piece.
Its value for birds is incalculable. Insects, spiders, mites, and other delicious insects live in Spanish Moss. That is why it is a great place to watch for migrating warblers in the spring and fall as they are primarily insect eaters. Warblers will also build their nests in Spanish Moss and larger bird species will line their
nests with it.
How did it get its name? The Native Americans called it itla-okla (tree hair). They communicated this to the early French explorers who were in a competition with the Spanish explorers. The French explorers named it barbe Espagnol (Spaniard’s beard). The Spanish explorers called it cabello Frances (French hair). The French name, barbe Espagnol, was modified to Spanish Moss and that is the name stuck in