Curious plants: Spanish moss

Spanish moss or Tillandsia usneoides is an intriguing rootless plant that adds an air of mystery to gardens, conservatories or greenhouses with its long silver-grey tendrils.

A member of the bromeliad family, Spanish moss is an epiphyte, meaning it grows on other plants, but does not rely on its host for nutrients (and so doesn’t kill it). Instead, the plant “catches” moisture and nutrients from the air.

It thrives in humid areas, such as Florida and Louisiana in the US, but it can go dormant until there’s enough moisture about again. It reproduces by wind-borne seed and by producing “pups”.

A Tauranga gardener has some fun with her thriving Spanish moss.

As well as humidity, the plant also needs shade and is generally grown hanging from tree branches where it also gets good air movement. One website (which I won’t link to as the English is rather poor) advises the plants prefer rainwater (ie, not mains water) and that they must be watered from the top so the water runs down the length of the plant. Watering must be thorough and done only when the plant is once again dry (ie, don’t water when the plant is still wet).

My first attempt at growing it was thwarted by birds who made off with strands of the plant for their nests – however, I have recently been told by a gardener with a good selection growing outside that if the Spanish moss is kept damp the birds won’t touch it, they want only dry material.

The plant used to be used for several commercial purposes in the US, including as mattress stuffing. Read more here, and see a photo of it growing in the Florida everglades.

If you look carefully there are subtle variations in the sizes of the tendrils.

The Bromeliad Plant Care website says the French call it “Spanish beard” while the Spanish call the plant “French hair”. One legend as to how it got its name tells of a Spanish explorer Gorez Goz who “bought” a native maiden in central America. But she was afraid of him and ran away. To evade her pursuer she climbed a tree and dived into some water. Goz followed her but became entangled in the tree and died there. However, his “grey beard” continues to grow and spread through the trees.

Text and photos copyright Sandra Simpson and may not be reused without permission.

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