By John Felsher
Probably no other plant more closely epitomizes the Deep South than Spanish moss. Movies, books, paintings and television programs depicting the Southern way of life go to great lengths to show stereotypical oak trees festooned with the wispy gray plant.
Long a symbol of the South and the Southern way of life, paintings of old plantation houses always portray Spanish moss dripping from stately trees. Along coastal wetlands, forlorn cypress trees draped in the mysterious gray threads warn intruders not to enter unprepared. The swamps might not let them go home.
Today, the plant blankets hardwoods across the Deep South from east Texas to Virginia. Although modern urbanization and pollution have taken a toll on the delicate plant, travelers find it clinging to trees in nearly every public park or forest across its range.
Despite its common familiarity, Spanish moss suffers from an “identity crisis.” Largely misunderstood, it is neither “Spanish” nor a “moss.” It is an epiphyte, or air plant with the scientific name of tillandsia usneoides. Of the family of Bromeliaceae, or a bromeliad, it is closely related to orchids and, oddly enough, pineapples.
The only species of the pineapple family indigenous to the continental United States, it attaches itself to tree trunks and branches, especially live oaks, and hangs in long, gray strands. Slender, threadlike stems can reach lengths up to six feet. Not usually thought of as a leafy, flowering plant, it does not root in the soil, preferring to cling to supporting trees. It does grow small leaves and inconspicuous minuscule yellow flowers. It even bears a small capsule-like fruit.
Contrary to popular belief, Spanish moss does not harm trees. Not parasitic, it absorbs necessary moisture directly from the air through scales in its “stem.” Its presence on the tree does not harm its host, nor does it compete for food with its host. It gets nothing from the tree, except a sturdy place to hang around.
To survive, it needs a strong host, sunlight, moisture and clean air. Like octopus tentacles, it wraps itself around suitable branches and hangs in the sunlight, absorbing all the goodness of the air. Because it gets nourishment directly from the air, it cannot tolerate airborne contaminants or cold temperatures. Therefore, increasing pollution and urbanization reduced the abundance of this rather delicate plant across much of the South.
One would think that such a hairy plant would host its own swarming insect populations. Quite the contrary, something about Spanish moss repels insects, although other small creatures, such as tree frogs, seek refuge within its protective cocoon. Instead of draining its host of food, it actually provides a degree of protection from creepy crawly pests that might damage trees.
Long ago, fishermen, hunters and trappers wrapped themselves in Spanish moss when mosquitoes became too annoying. Even today, sporting men and women sometimes drape themselves with Spanish moss when sitting on a deer stand or in a duck blind. Not only does the moss protect them from insects, but also provides excellent native camouflage.
Its propensity to repel bugs made Spanish moss fibers an excellent stuffing material for mattresses and upholstered furniture. Two centuries ago, insect-borne diseases killed thousands of people in the warm, wet, semi-tropical wilderness of the Deep South. Settlers used anything to keep bugs away.
Until the early decades of the 20th century, Spanish moss not only protected people from the ravages of insects, but also from the ravages of poverty. Commercial moss harvesters operated lucrative enterprises throughout the once vast swamps and forests in parts of the South. They used long poles to pull moss clumps from tall trees. They baled their “catch” into great heaps and transported them by boat or wagon to processing gins.
Processing gins turned the gray-scaled strands into black fibers similar to horsehair. These fibers constituted the backbone of a thriving upholstering industry. Some of the best furniture in stately old homes still contains this symbol of the South.
Today, with cheap, synthetic fibers on the market, few people still make their
livelihoods from the hard, backbreaking labor of gathering or ginning Spanish moss.
The great wilderness areas where the moss
thrives largely disappeared. Those wild areas
that remain sit mostly on private land
or in highly regulated refuges, wildlife management
areas or other sanctuaries.
Some people still make small, stuffed objects
and handicrafts from the moss. One
can still purchase small quantities for large
sums in hobby or craft stores. These remnants
of a once-great industry usually go
into making decorative ornaments.
While few people still stuff Spanish
moss fibers into furniture or mattresses,
the plant remains the stuff of legends. The
Attakapas Indians, who ruled the swamps
of southern Louisiana, had many ideas of
how the odd-looking plant arrived in the
South. Two of their more romantic legends
attribute the moss to either the short-lived
love affair of two young Indians or to the
death of a lusty Spaniard.
The Stuff of Legends
According to the first legend, long before
the first white men penetrated the
swamplands of future Cajun Country, an
Attakapas princess fell deeply in love with
a brave from another village. Her choice of
a mate outside the clan greatly angered her
father, a powerful war chief. The chief prohibited
her from seeing her lover. Simply
unthinkable, marriage to an outsider would
disgrace the chief, the village and the tribe.
As often happens, especially with teenaged
girls, love proved more powerful an
influence than parental authority. The princess
obeyed her father, at least publicly, but
secretly rendezvoused with her forbidden
lover deep in the swamp.
Also, as often happens throughout history,
the lovers could not keep such an illicit
affair secret for long. Soon, the chief
learned about the clandestine assignations.
Enraged, he swore to end such disobedience
immediately. He hid near an oak tree
that marked the secret meeting place.
When the lovers arrived, the chief
hurled himself at the surprised young warrior.
They grappled in a deathly embrace.
The brave warrior fought like a lion, but
his strength was no match for the chief’s
blistering paternal hatred. The old man cut
the young warrior to pieces with his knife.
Heartbroken, the princess then grabbed the
knife and thrust it into her own stomach,
killing herself as the legend goes.
This tragedy so saddened the Great Spirit
that he placed the lovers’ long, ebony hair
high in the oak tree where all could see it
blowing in the wind. Forever, it would remind
all who passed beneath of the power
of love and hate. After many years, the hair
turned gray and spread from branch to
branch, then tree to tree as a lasting memorial
of the affection between the princess
and the young warrior.
A second legend evokes the bitter rivalry
between natives and explorers. In the
early history of Louisiana, Spanish explorers
roamed the swamps in search of gold.
Months at sea without female companionship
burdened these men with overflowing
hormones. When they landed and discovered
beautiful young Indian maidens, their
boiling hormones erupted.
One Spanish explorer fancied a certain
Attakapan Indian maiden. She did not return
his affection. Spying her fetching water
one day, he fell hopelessly in love – or
at least in lust – with her! He approached
the young maiden, who fled through the
swamp in terror. Not being able to outrun
the larger, stronger man, the girl tried to
escape by climbing into a giant oak tree, but
the Spaniard saw her and climbed after her.
She climbed higher; so did he.
Soon, she had no place else to go. As the
Spaniard reached for the beautiful woman,
she jumped to the ground. Injured, she
limped away, disappearing into the vast unknown
that marked the primordial swamp.
She never returned to her village.
The Spaniard suffered a worse fate, according
to the legend. He lunged after the
maiden, but entangled his long gray beard
in twigs and tree branches. Hopelessly enmeshed
in the high branches, the Spaniard
became the prisoner of the tree. Trapped
deep in the swamp, he never returned to
his shipmates either.
Nature took its course. Eventually, nothing
remained of the lusty Spaniard except
his beard. By supernatural force, it propagated
from tree to tree as a reminder of the
explorer’s sin. Soon, nearly every oak tree
in the South sported some “Spanish Beard.”
Doubtful though this origin may seem,
the name “Spanish Beard” caused considerable
real friction between competing
French and Spanish settlers along the Gulf
Coast. The plant reminded French explorers
of the long, flowing gray beards worn
by Spaniards. They called it Barbe Espagnol,
or “Spanish Beard.” Highly insulted, the
Spanish retaliated against their European
rivals by naming the plant Cabello Frances
or “French Hair.”
Although both Spain and France each
controlled Louisiana at various periods in
history, the French culture prevailed more
prominently than that of the Spanish.
Therefore, a variant of the French version
stuck – more or less.
Today, the popular name of tillandsia
usneoides, “Spanish moss,” survives as a reminder
of the time of legends, when rival
tribes and nations fought for honor, riches
and glory in the new land, eventually called
“America.” Hopefully, this wonderful plant
that so epitomizes the Deep South will survive
for as long and continue to represent
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