Saturday, May 21, 2016
Spanish Moss, Gray Beards on the Trees
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?
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?
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.
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.