Spanish moss (Tillansdia usenoides)
The plant that brings charm to the South
Spanish moss swaying and hanging from the branches of tall trees, who knew it once helped heal a sprained knee. This plant is one of the most iconic plants of the South. Despite its popularity, few know that Spanish moss also known as long-moss, tree moss, crape-moss, and old man’s beard, is truly not a moss, but an epiphytic plant. Look closely in the spring for tiny flowers arising from the axils of silvery leaves. Flowers reportedly have alight, pleasant smell at night.
Spanish moss belongs to the tropical and subtropical family Bromilaceae. It grows in areas with high humidity along the coast from southeast Virginia south to Florida and west to Texas in North America. Outside of the U.S., it occurs in Mexico, Central and South America, and the West Indies.
The plant forms long graceful festoons (a chain of leaves) that adorn and beautify trees and shrubs. Live oak (Quercus virginiana) branches extend outward horizontally instead of vertically, which allows light to hit the Spanish moss.
The traditional uses of Spanish moss, almost buried by time, still exists in the hearts of the Gullah people. Many can recall a time when people put it in their shoes to lower high blood pressure around their necks to relieve pain. The fresh green moss was collected and boiled in order to make a decoction for treating aching and inflamed joints. The decoction was put in the bath to relieve pain associated with rheumatism. Further, the Gullah used the plant as a fiber, stuffing pillows and mattresses with Spanish moss in the past. This plant is used medically in Mexico, Cuba, and Brazil. In Guatemala, they use it as a decoration for religious and festive occasions.
The long traditional use of Spanish moss followed by the graceful festoons that adorn live oaks make this species one of the most charismatic and iconic plants of the South. The familiar and nostalgic images of Spanish moss hanging from grand live oaks that line old dusty roads in the South give us a sense of place, a connection to the land. The plant’s beauty and wonder extend beyond adornment to practical, useful traditional purposes. I have made a decoction of this plant and put in my bath and it was very invigorating. Whenever I am collecting, people passing by always say-“be careful that plant has bugs in it”. However, I have yet to get bit by any insect. It is worth collecting and making a tea by boiling the plant for 10-15 minutes and adding it to your bath. I hope you give it a try.