Wetland Plant Series: Spanish Moss

By Aaliyah Ross, Environmental Educator

Spanish moss on Bald Cypress trees, Floodplain Boardwalk
Spanish moss on Bald Cypress trees, Floodplain Boardwalk

Long, wispy strands of gray-green moss draped over Live Oak branches is a familiar scene often associated with the Southeastern US. But although Spanish moss is one of the most recognizable plants at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park, its history and ecology are often misunderstood. Here are some interesting facts about this unique wetland species:

What’s in a Name?

The common name “Spanish moss” is a misnomer—the plant is neither Spanish nor a moss. Its native range extends from Argentina and Chile north through Virginia. Indigenous tribes called the plant itla-okla, i.e. “tree hair”. French explorers named the plant barbe espagnole, or “Spanish beard”, after the long beards worn by many Spanish conquistadores who were also in the Southeast at the time. The strange name stuck, and evolved over time into “Spanish moss”.

Trichomes on a strand of Spanish moss, which help the plant absorb and retain water. Source: www.clemson.edu/extension/horticulture
Trichomes on a strand of Spanish moss, which help the plant absorb and retain water. Source: Clemson University Extension, www.clemson.edu/extension/horticulture

Spanish moss is a bromeliad, the same family of plants that pineapples belong to. In fact, looking at a strand of Spanish moss under a magnifying glass reveals a pattern of overlapping scales (called trichomes) similar to that of a pineapple rind!

An Epiphyte, not a Parasite

Spanish moss is an epiphyte, which is a plant that grows on another plant for physical support. Contrary to popular belief, it does not remove water or nutrients from its host tree. Rather, the trichomes covering its strands are specialized to trap water from rain, fog, and water vapor in the air. This adaptation is why Spanish moss does not need roots. The relationship between Spanish moss and its host tree is best described as a commensalism; an ecological relationship in which one species benefits and the other is neither helped nor harmed.

Red Alert

Another common misconception is that Spanish moss contains chiggers, also known as red bugs. The biting larval forms of these tiny arachnids (adults don’t bite) often hang out in pine straw and tall grass, waiting for a passing host. They may also inhabit Spanish moss that has fallen to the ground, but Spanish moss on trees is unlikely to harbor chiggers.

Two Forms of Reproduction

Spanish moss produces small, inconspicuous flowers that are pollinated by wind.
Spanish moss produces small, inconspicuous flowers that are pollinated by wind.

On school field trips, one of the most common questions we get about Spanish moss is “How does it get in the tree in the first place?” Like many plants, it has two forms of reproduction. New Spanish moss plants are created when wind-dispersed seeds land in crevices in the bark of trees. It can also reproduce asexually when growing portions are broken off and carried by wind or birds to new trees, where they continue to grow.

On your next visit to the park, stop and take a minute to appreciate the incredible survival skills of this beautiful bromeliad!