Everyone knows what Spanish moss is. It’s that stuff that gently sways in the breeze as it drapes over the branches of an old oak tree in the South, right? But what really is Spanish moss? Is it actually Spanish? Is it actually a moss — or something else entirely? Today we’re going to take an in-depth look at the most commonly-grown air plant in the United States and find out all about its history, growth habits, and a few common uses for its foliage.
The name “Spanish moss” actually originated as “Spanish beard”. Native American tribal people called it “itla-okla”, which meant “tree hair”. Some French thought that it resembled a conquistador’s long beard and began calling it “Barbe Espagnol”, or Spanish beard. While the Spaniards retaliated by referring to it as “Cabello Frances”, or French Hair, it never caught on.
Over time, Spanish beard became Spanish moss, what it’s most commonly known as today. The Polynesians occasionally refer to Spanish moss as “Kali’s hair”, and throughout its natural environment it’s still called “tree hair”, simply because it resembles hair so much!
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Spanish Moss Overview
|Common Name(s)||Spanish moss, Old Man’s Beard, Spanish Beard, Tree Hair, Kali’s Hair|
|Scientific Name||Tillandsia Usneoides|
|Origin||Southern U.S., Central & South America, other tropical & subtropical areas|
|Height||Can reach lengths of 20-25 feet|
|Water||Regular watering preferred|
|Humidity||High humidity preferred|
|Soil||Does not require soil|
|Fertilizer||Generally does not require fertilizer|
|Propagation||Cuttings of offshoots or seed|
|Pests||Can house pests, but is not typically fed on by pests|
Types of Spanish Moss
One of the most notable things about Spanish moss is that it’s not even a moss at all — this Tillandsia is a bromeliad, and a relative of the pineapple. It’s also an epiphyte, which means it lacks normal roots and instead takes in its nutrition and moisture through its foliage.
Tillandsia usneoides ‘Munro’s Filiformis’, ‘Silver Ghost’, ‘El Finito’
This particular variety is native to Paraguay, but is commonly sold as ‘Silver Ghost’. It has very fine and smooth tendril-like leaves which have a distinctive grey-green shade. It produces a greenish-tinged flower.
Tillandsia usneoides ‘Maurice’s Robusta’
Compared to the Silver Ghost variety, Maurice’s Robusta has far thicker leaves. It also tends to be a grey-green color, but leans more towards the greyish side unless freshly watered. A native of Mexico, Maurice’s Robusta has become quite popular in Australia. Its flowers when it blooms tend towards a yellow or yellow-green hue.
Tillandsia usneoides ‘Odin’s Genuina’
Originally from Guatemala and Mexico, Odin’s Genuina is quite popular in Europe. It has fine silver leaves that range 4-6 centimeters in length. The flowers are more of a yellow-brown shade when it blooms.
Tillandsia usneoides ‘Spanish Gold’
Brilliant yellow tiny flowers and slender grey-green foliage are the highlights of the Spanish Gold varietal. With its origins in South America, it’s become widely cultivated elsewhere, and is quite popular throughout Australia and New Zealand.
Tillandsia usneoides ‘Tight and Curly’
This Spanish moss lives up to its name! Slender silver leaves that curl tightly together are the hallmark of this varietal. This particular version is often grown in California gardens.
This is an interesting hybrid form of Spanish moss. It’s theorized that it was cross-pollinated with Tillandsia mallemontii to produce a form of Spanish moss which bloomed light purple against silvery foliage.
This is a hybrid of Spanish moss and “ball moss”, also known as Tillandsia recurvata. Silvery-green slender leaves form a dense clump that falls into the dwarf range of Tillandsias.
Tillandsia ‘Old Man’s Gold’
One more hybrid that’s notable is Old Man’s Gold, a blend of Tillandsia usneoides with Tillandsia crocata. It’s known for its large yellowish flowers on silvery-green strands of foliage, but also tends more to the dwarf size rather than a more typical usneoides.
Caring For Spanish Moss
Overall, Spanish moss is incredibly easy to deal with. It grows wild all over the southeastern US, after all! There are a few things that you can do to improve the longevity of your air-loving old man’s beard, though. Here’s a few recommendations.
This plant likes indirect, but bright lighting most of the time. That’s why Spanish moss is so prevalent on tree branches… there’s plenty of ambient light around, but it’s protected from the sun’s direct rays that dry it out too quickly. Ideally, place your Spanish moss in a location where it can benefit from regular light, but won’t be hit by the powerful rays of the sun from noon through late afternoon. A little morning light won’t hurt it generally, but try to avoid too much direct sun, as it can cause the moss to turn black and to die off.
Spanish moss likes water and humidity. It also doesn’t like to be wet for long, like most other bromeliads. Most recommendations are to water only when the plant is completely dry, and to give it a good soaking from the top when it needs it. Indoors, you can place a bucket overtop your Spanish moss and then pour cups full of water over the plant until it’s dripping. Outdoors, you can skip the bucket and just dampen it with a hose. Don’t water it again until it’s completely and totally dry. You can occasionally mist it between the soakings if you feel it needs it.
It’s advised to use distilled water or rainwater to water your Spanish moss whenever possible. Too much chlorine is a major problem for this plant and may kill it.
Most varieties of Tillandsia usneoides will acquire a greenish tinge when freshly watered, but they rapidly go back to a grey-green or silvery exterior as they dry out. Ideally, you want your plant to be mostly dry on the exterior within 20-30 minutes of being watered, and avoid overwatering it. Too much water can cause rot.
Tillandsia usneoides, like other epiphytic plants, doesn’t actually need soil. It prefers to grow on living trees, although some people have successfully cultivated it using old oak or cypress branches. Others have formed wire frames from which to hang their Spanish moss. However, it needs to hang straight down from whatever it’s resting on. It does not do well if it bundles up into a mass!
What Spanish moss prefers to soil is good airflow. It needs to be able to sway in the breeze.
While it hasn’t been established exactly what it is about oak and cypress that makes those trees perfect environments, it’s widely assumed that it has to do with the lack of resinous sap and with their shady canopies. Both oaks and cypress trees tend to produce large amounts of shade, which makes them perfect for Tillandsia to live in.
Cultivators of Spanish moss are split on whether it’s good to fertilize it or not. If you do decide to fertilize yours, it’s best to use a super-diluted form of an orchid or bromeliad fertilizer. Often, it doesn’t need fertilizer at all. If you have any question as to the strength of a fertilizer, it might be wise to start another couple of cuttings and get them established so that you can test out fertilizers on them. But with this plant, less is more – if you are at all in doubt, don’t fertilize your plant.
Like most other bromeliads, Spanish moss is most often cultivated by offshoots. It can grow to reach lengths of nearly 20 feet, and typically side shoots are cut to start a new plant from rather than from the main stem. You can simply trim off one of the side shoots and start treating it as if it were a new plant, and most of the time it will flourish on its own.
You can actually grow Spanish moss from seed as well. However, to harvest seed from Spanish moss, you have to be there at exactly the right time. It is fluffy and easily carried away on the wind like dandelion seed is, which means that the very few seeds each flower produces are whisked away on the breeze. It’s far easier to just start a plant from an existing offshoot.
If you are starting a new Spanish moss cutting, prepare what it’s going to hang from first. Are you going to use a wire frame, an old tree branch, or something else? Prepare that initially, then drape your cutting overtop and water it. Keep an eye on it and water again once it’s completely dry to encourage its further growth.
You can trim Spanish moss to length simply by snipping off the ends, but try to avoid doing that often as it tends to cause more side shoots to form. It’s a slow grower, but it does grow and it does spread over time.
Pests and Diseases
Interestingly enough, Spanish moss does not appear to have any natural predators. However, it frequently houses all manner of wildlife.
There is a variety of spider named Pelegrina tillandsia Kaston which is reputed to live in Tillandsia usneoides, but it is harmless to humans. Other pests which are said to make their home in Spanish moss include chiggers, spider mites, some species of butterfly, and boll weevils. In the home, you can use a typical insecticidal or miticidal spray or organic alternative to keep the smaller pests out of your moss.
Once Spanish moss has died and fallen to the ground, frogs tend to make homes in it. Birds are also known to harvest Spanish moss to line their nests, both living and dead, so if you’re starting a batch of moss outside, you may want to protect it from bird-theft until it’s grown enough to handle it. Some species of bat may also use Spanish moss for daytime shelter.
It’s also a very disease-free plant on the whole, only being susceptible to rot if it’s left in a large quantity of water for too long. Since it generally hangs to grow, this is unlikely unless the plant has fallen off of its perch somehow.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What has Spanish moss been used for?
A: Over time, Spanish moss has been used for clothing, as padding in pillows and mattresses, and even as part of swamp coolers. It has no nutritious value, so it’s not commonly used as livestock fodder. It’s also a favorite in dried floral arrangements or as part of craft projects because of its unique look.
Q: Does Spanish moss feed on my trees or other plants?
A: Actually, no. Spanish moss has no roots that go into the tree’s surface, nor anything which could poison the tree it’s hanging on. However, as it grows, it can start shading lower leaves or branches of the tree by accident and can lower the tree’s ability to photosynthesize light. For this reason, it’s recommended to thin out the Spanish moss on your trees occasionally when it starts to form very thick, light-blocking mats.
Q: Is Spanish moss poisonous to my pets?
A: Nope! It’s safe around your pets. However, if you have pet birds who have free range in your house, your Spanish moss may end up worked into their nest if you aren’t attentive.
Overall, Spanish moss is a very popular bromeliad, both for its ease in care and for its beauty when it’s hanging on trees. But it’s also great as an indoor plant, and with a little finesse can provide a natural curtain of foliage. Are you inspired to try growing your own tree hair?