Saturday, May 21, 2016

Spanish Moss, Gray Beards on the Trees

Softening the branches on many of the trees in our neighborhood, Spanish moss drapes lazily down, creating a mood redolent of heat, humidity and southern tranquility.  I love it.  The streamers of Spanish moss were one of the features I fell in love with when I first drove down this street.

So I was rather shocked when one of our neighbors started talking about how he needed to find someone to take the moss out of his trees, because it was killing them.  I knew from my time in Mobile, Alabama, that Spanish moss is an epiphyte, a plant without roots that does NOT take nutrients from the plant that it is living on.  Epiphytes get all their water and nutrients directly from the air, rain and dust.  They are NOT parasitic, as mistletoe is, despite their similar location in the canopies of trees.

How could anyone not like this beautiful, graceful, gray-green plant that waves so softly in the slightest breeze?

It turns out that there are several serious, fairly widespread misconceptions about Spanish moss.  One of the saddest and most damaging of these misconceptions is that it will harm your trees.  The truth is that Spanish moss will often colonize trees that are already beginning to decline, growing more rapidly than on nearby, healthier trees due to the increased light that occurs in the thinning canopies of the trees that are already dying.  This has made it all too easy to blame the trees' decline on the Spanish moss.

The only "damage" that Spanish moss will actually do to a healthy tree is to partially shade the leaves of the lower branches and, if it's heavily festooning a tree, increase the wind resistance should the tree be in an area unlucky enough to be hit by a hurricane.  The photo above is the canopy of the same tree in the previous photo. The tree is healthy and actively growing, despite having a large amount of Spanish moss growing on it.

Even the concern that large collections of Spanish moss can "weigh down" a branch and cause it to fall appear to be mistaken - Spanish moss is very lightweight and branches that have fallen are almost always found to have other structural weaknesses that brought them down.

So what is this odd plant?  Is it, indeed, even a plant?

Yes, indeed, Spanish moss IS a plant.  Going by the scientific name of Tillandsia usneoides, Spanish moss is actually a flowering plant in the pineapple family!  It is NOT a moss and it is NOT Spanish.  Apparently, if you look really closely during the summer months, you can see small blooms that are variously reported to be green, bluish, or yellow.  Not having looked for said blossoms, I hadn't noticed them before...but I looked for them today and I found them.   Do you see the bloom in the photo above?  Here is a closeup of it....

They are apparently even mildly fragrant.  Here is another flower, more of a true yellow in color.

Although one of the primary structures of Spanish moss is its long stem, which can reach 20 feet or more in length, there is no functional xylem or phloem in the plant.  Each cell either gathers its nutrients and moisture directly from the air and photosynthesizes energy itself or it gets its resources from a neighboring cell.  There are small, very narrow leaves.  Both the stems and leaves are covered with overlapping gray scales that are important in capturing the airborne water and nutrients that sustain this plant.

Not surprisingly since it's native to this area, Spanish moss is actually an important plant for wildlife.  Several birds use it extensively for nesting material, including the Baltimore Oriole.  The Northern Parula (warbler) is said to nest where Spanish moss and other similar lichens occur, building its nest inside the hanging festoons.  There is even a spider that lives only in Spanish moss; many other animals use it for shelter or as foraging grounds.

Looking straight up into the middle of hanging Spanish moss, you can see how nests could be hidden in the larger clumps.

Humans have traditionally used Spanish moss, too.  Native Americans made a tea from it to help cure fever and chills, and they used Spanish moss fibers in clothing, bedding, and to make rope.  They added Spanish moss to clay to make bricks and pottery stronger, and they used it to help start fires and to fire pottery.  The European settlers came to use Spanish moss, too.  Surprisingly, I learned that the seats of Model T Fords were actually stuffed with Spanish moss, as were other types of cushions and mattresses.  It was sometimes used as insulation in homes.

Even today, Spanish moss is used frequently in floral arrangements and for craft projects.  It is said to make an excellent mulch for plant beds, which I intend to try out.  It is common here to see piles of Spanish moss put out for the city waste trucks to pick up;  why not scavenge some of it, keeping it from the landfill in the process?  It's free, it's a beautiful gray-green color, and it's organic.  What's not to like?

As I did research for this post, I saw one final use mentioned for Spanish moss:  apparently in some locales it is draped from fences or wires as a privacy screen between neighbors!  I haven't seen that on Pinterest yet, but I'll bet some artful soul could really make an interesting backyard feature using the general concept.

Speaking of Spanish moss and landscape features, Mobile, Alabama, apparently used to be known for the gracious live oaks, heavily festooned with Spanish moss, that lined many of its streets.  When we lived there, we were told that the Spanish moss was declining, though, due to air pollution.  Certainly there is not much Spanish moss left in Mobile.  What little I've seen there tends to be on the back streets, which fits well with the idea that air pollution decreases its viability.

Of course, when I think about it, Spanish moss IS an epiphyte - a plant that gets all its nutrients and water from the air, rain and dust.  Is it so surprising, then, that poor air quality would decrease its health and therefore its ability to survive and reproduce?

How does Spanish moss actually reproduce?  It seems atmospheric, not reproductively vibrant.  However, as mentioned above, it's a flowering plant.  Thus, it produces (tiny) seeds that can and do produce new plants.  More frequently, though, Spanish moss probably spreads by wind or by animals such as birds, which carry small pieces of the plant from tree to tree as they move around.

Spreading across the landscape as if by magic, creating a mystical feeling by its very presence, Spanish moss is a special plant that creates a unique sense of place as it grows.  I'm excited to be able to encourage it here in our own personal landscape. 

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Continuing to Learn the Local Natives

When you watch a garden, day by day, it can seem like little changes in it, but if you go away for a week or two, when you come back, it's obvious how big the changes are.

The same phenomenon occurs when you walk a wild area regularly.  Greg and I went for a walk on Eglin AFB this morning, following the same trail that Anna and I took almost 2 weeks ago.  We had both dogs with us and only limited time available, so Greg and I didn't walk as far as Anna and I had, but we still got to see quite a few of the same plants, as well as a couple new bloomers.

Some plants are harder than others to identify, even when they are in full bloom. This little cutie caught my eye 2 weeks ago and it was even prettier today, but I still have no idea what it is.  It's about 6-8" tall, found in a sandhill/mixed pine and oak forest along a roughly maintained road.

The big, smooth stem in the foreground of this photo is probably a VERY healthy Smilax shoot;  it's about 1/2" in diameter, to give you a sense of scale.  Whatever it was, it hadn't leafed out yet. Here are some of the blooms from my mystery plant...

...and a closeup of one of the bloom spikes. 

If anyone can help me with the identification, I would be extremely grateful.  I doubt this plant is in the hort trade, as it is much too small to have any sort of visual impact in the landscape, but its daintiness and bright, cheery color appeal to me.

Not too far down the trail from my mysterious, little, pink charmer, we came across this healthy looking Gopherweed, Baptisia lanceolata.

Gopherweed is a horrible name for an attractive perennial, and I can find nothing about the genesis of or the rationale for the name to justify its use. Surely this pleasant plant, especially with its importance to native bees, deserves a pleasanter name!

Anyway, while the flowers aren't particularly showy, the foliage is pretty and the plant shape is nice. Like all Baptisias, Gopherweed is a nitrogen fixer for the soil, so it can be a good plant to have in the garden, especially here in sandy soil country.

Next on our wildflower discovery tour was a repeat specimen from my last visit, a pinewoods milkweed, Asclepias humistrata.  This individual was one of the only pinewoods milkweeds with fully open blooms 2 weeks ago - now it is developing a couple seed pods, but the blooms appear to be almost done.

It will be interesting to see if this plant reblooms, or if a single bloom is all that occurs, since seed will apparently develop.

Beyond the milkweed was a small, but extremely attractive, bloomer who was almost hidden behind a small, fallen branch and some other foliage.

I knew from the shape of the blooms and from the compound leaves that this plant was in the pea/bean family, but I had to come home and look it up to determine its identity.  Even after looking it up, I'm not sure what to call it.  The scientific name is Tephrosia virginica.  That's pretty straightforward.  However, there are multiple common names.  The USDA Plant Database calls it Virginia Tephrosia, so I assume that's its official common name.  It was, however, most commonly referred to as Goat's Rue.  Other common names are Devil's Shoestrings (apparently referring to its long, tough, stringy roots), Catgut, Rabbit Pea, Hoary Pea, Wild Sweetpea, and North American Turkey Pea.  That's EIGHT different common names.  Thank goodness for scientific nomenclature!

I found several other specimens of Goat's Rue further along the trail, including a couple that seemed to be small colonies, but this little individual, nestled by the reindeer moss, was my favorite.

Goat's Rue has a fairly wide range, including most of the eastern U.S., and it appears to have been a well known medicinal plant to Native Americans.  Multiple sources mentioned that its roots contain rotenone, a chemical that has been used as an organic insecticide and as a fish poison.  Probably not a plant to think about munching on.

Providing a sudden change from the spring-like colors of pink, white and yellow that I'd been seeing so far along the trail, the bright scarlet blooms of Red Basil (Calamintha coccinea) actually surprised me.

I thought this plant was primarily a fall bloomer...but apparently it will bloom at least sporadically throughout the growing season.  It's another plant I'm hoping to find a source for and then add to our yardscape - low-growing, gorgeous flowers, evergreen foliage.  The foliage is very fine textured and rather sparse, but I still think the plant is quite attractive, and in full bloom it is quite stunning.

With our truncated walk, we didn't see much wildlife:  tracks of deer, boar, and raccoon, a male towhee, and the lacy spider web....

...of a funnel spider.  The spider, as is normal for funnel spiders, kept herself hidden deep in her funnel, but the web was beautiful - a true, lacy, fairy's handkerchief.