Spanish moss (Tillandsia usenoides) is not a moss. Its common name is a misnomer. Spanish moss is a member of the Bromeliaceae (bromeliad or pineapple) family and is a flowering plant that completes photosynthesis using rainfall and nutrients that it ‘collects’ from the air. Hence, it sometimes is referred to as an ‘air plant’.
Note, in the picture above taken at the Oslo Riverfront Conservation Area, the tiny flowers and silken hairs of the ‘parachutes’ that spread its seeds. Spanish moss often is found growing in stately live oaks (Quercus virginiana) in the company of other epiphytes, including ferns and orchids.
In his journal published in 1699, God’s Protecting Providence Man’s Surest Help and Defence in the times of the greatest difficulty and most Imminent danger Evidenced in the Remarkable Deliverance of divers Persons, from the devouring Waves of the Sea, amongst which they Suffered Shipwrack. And also from the more cruelly devouring jawes of the inhumane Canibals of Florida. Faithfully related by one of the persons concerned therein, Jonathan Dickinson reported that some of the aboriginal people clothed themselves in Spanish moss.
State of Florida Department of Agriculture Bulletin #85 published in 1957 says that the “industry of using the moss is nearly as old as the history of the State”. Harvesting and processing Spanish moss was both cottage industry and an important commercial enterprise. The bulletin laments that after 40 years of producing ‘quality filler’ for mattresses, cushions, and pillows that the industry was in decline with only 2 commercial ginning operations left in Florida. Click here to enjoy this charming publication with wonderful photographs.