An image of Spanish moss draping from the trees often reminds people of sultry summer days in the South. Prettier than kudzu, less formal than a palm tree, it is a symbol of nature at its most relaxed. Here are 10 fascinating facts about Spanish moss.
1. Spanish moss is not actually moss ...
The plant has an incredibly misleading name: Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is not a moss at all. It is a bromeliad, which means it is in the same taxonomic family as pineapples and some tropical house plants.
2. ... and it isn’t from Spain, either.
It’s native to Central America, South America, the United States, and the Caribbean. In the U.S., it grows from Texas to Virginia, staying in the moister areas of the South; its preferred habitat is a healthy tree in tropical swampland.
3. French explorers gave Spanish moss its name.
Native peoples told French colonists the plant was called Itla-okla [PDF], which meant “tree hair.” The French were reminded of the Spanish conquistadors’ long beards, so they called it barbe Espagnol, or “Spanish beard.” The Spaniards got back at them by calling the plant cabello Francés, or “French Hair.” The French name won out, and as time went by Spanish beard changed to Spanish moss.
4. There are several legends surrounding Spanish moss.
Spanish moss has an enchanting, almost otherworldly look to it, so it’s no surprise the plant is associated with various legends. One of the most prominent tales told about Spanish moss involves Gorez Goz. According to the legend, Goz was a “bearded brute” of a Spaniard. He bought a Native woman, who was so scared of the man she ran up a tree to escape him. Goz pursued her, but his beard got caught in the branches; he died, but his beard remains on the trees to this day.
5. Spanish moss does not harm the trees it grows on.
Although Spanish moss grows on trees, it is not a parasite. It doesn’t put down roots in the tree it grows on, nor does it take nutrients from it. The plant thrives on rain and fog, sunlight, and airborne or waterborne dust and debris.
6. The surface of Spanish moss is covered with tiny gray scales.
The gray scales trap water until the plant can absorb it. The plant’s tissues can hold more water than the plant needs to keep it going through dry periods. When the tissues plump up after a rain, Spanish moss appears more green. As the water is used, it returns to a gray hue.
7. Spanish moss seeds float.
The seeds of the moss have feathery appendages like dandelion seeds. This allows them to float through the air until they land on a good spot to grow: another tree.
8. Spanish moss is more likely to propagate by fragmented pieces of plant called festoons.
When a festoon is broken off and carried off by wind or birds (using it for nest material), it will begin to grow into a full plant if it lands in an acceptable place.
9. People use Spanish moss in several ways.
Spanish moss doesn’t make good livestock feed, because it has almost no nutritive value. But it has a great number of other uses. Indigenous women used it for dresses in the past. It can be used as an arbor roof or to hang over a chain-link fence for privacy, but because it will only live in trees, you have to replenish the supply as the moss dies. American colonists mixed Spanish moss with mud to make mortar for their houses. Dried moss is good tinder for fires, and you can make it into blankets, rope, and mattress filling. Mattresses filled with Spanish moss are noted for staying cool on a warm summer night. Because it soaks up and retains water, it is also used for garden mulch.
10. Many kinds of wildlife use Spanish moss.
Birds use it to build nests, and bats roost within the moss [PDF]. Frogs and spiders live in it. Boll weevils are especially drawn to Spanish moss, but moths are not, which is one reason it was preferred over wool in upholstery before synthetic fibers replaced both. Those who gather Spanish moss are warned against chiggers, but experienced collectors say chiggers only invade the moss after it touches the ground. Before tackling a mound of Spanish moss, you will want to be on guard for snakes that may be hiding in it.
A version of this story originally ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.