Your Forest’s Imposter

March 2019

photo of female park rangerBy Ranger Lauren

I love Spanish moss. I’ll admit it. I love how it dangles and sways from the branches of ma­jes­tic trees. I love walking through old growth for­ests that are thick with the stuff. It reminds me of lace draped over the arms of stately ladies.

Tree draped with moss in front of buildingBut Spanish moss is an imposter. An “im-moss-ster,” I should say, because it’s a moss imposter. Despite its name, it’s not a moss at all. Mosses are low-growing, water-loving plants that are typ­i­cally found on the ground. 

Like ball moss, Spanish moss is an epi­phyte (pro­nounced “epi-fight”), which is a plant that gets all its water and nutrients from the air. Unlike mosses, these plants are mostly found high up on trees or tele­phone wires. Believe it or not, Spanish moss is in the same plant family as pine­apples and suc­cu­lents (the bro­me­liads). Spanish moss isn't from Spain, either. It's native to Mexico, Central Amer­ica, South America, the U.S., and the Caribbean.

Despite its thoroughly misleading name, Spanish moss is a fas­ci­nating plant. For one thing, it has no roots. Instead, it is made up of slender stems with thin, curved leaves (called festoons) which grow in a chain-like fashion and form a hanging mass up to 20 feet long. The surface of each leaf is covered with tiny gray scales that trap water when it rains. This is why the moss looks bigger and greener after a good rain. The water is stored in these scales until the plant can absorb it, which keeps the plant alive through dry periods.  

Many people believe that Spanish moss – and its cousin, ball moss – are parasites. That is not the case. These plants get all the nutrients they need from the air (dust and minerals in the air or the debris around them), not from a host plant. Their pres­ence can weigh down the branches of the trees they grow on and shade their leaves. But that’s a far cry from a parasite (like mistle­toe) that digs its roots into the flesh of its victim tree to steal nutrients and water. 

In the past, Native American women used Spanish moss for dresses. American colonists mixed Spanish moss with mud to make mortar for their houses—some of which are still standing today. Dried moss makes good tinder for fires, and you can make it into blankets, rope and mattress filling.

Many kinds of wildlife take advantage of Spanish moss, too. Birds use it to build nests, and critters like frogs and insects like to live in it. 

You can see Spanish moss growing in the park along the creek, up at the Rec Hall, and on our golf course. Check it out the next time you visit!