Ah, Spanish moss. No southern swamp, plantation, or wise old tootsie pop authority would be the same without it. But DID YOU KNOW that Spanish moss is neither Spanish, nor a moss, and is actually more closely related to the pineapple, which is neither a pine nor an apple! Discuss. I’ll start.
These gorgeous, satisfyingly spongy plants are actually an epiphytic (epi-FIT-ic) bromeliad (bro-ME-lee-ad). Epiphytic meaning a plant that depends upon another for its (itty bitty) living space, but sucks all its nutrients from the air and rain, not harming the host plant.
That’s good cuz it would kinda ruin the charm if Spanish moss was sucking the life out of the beautiful Oaks they hung from. Bromeliad is the family name, a category mostly consisting of epiphytic plants in the subtropical/tropical Americas, but also includes some terrestrial freaks like the pineapple. Really I just included it cuz it’s really fun to say. Bro-me-li-ad.
Even the Latin name for Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides, means “looks like lichen.” This was the somewhat stingy economy of imagination given to us straight from the very father of taxonomy Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). Which I totally forgive, because how many plants can one really be asked to name before going cross-eyed and dizzy and naming everything Plantis plant.
The common name comes from the French. Originally the Native Americans called it “tree hair,” which the French renamed “Spanish Beard” to make fun of their rivals. The Spanish retaliated with “French Hair” but I guess it just didn’t stick as well. And because Subtropical Epiphyte just doesn’t roll off the tongue.
While on the subject, the common name of ‘pineapple’ comes from the fruit’s uncanny pinecone likeness. Can’t speak for apple though. It should really be like Pine-orange or Pine-lemon, I mean if we’re going for likeness.
Spanish Moss keeps some interesting bedfellows, including rat snakes (the ones with the creepy round pupils, somehow making it infinitely more freaky looking), three species of bats (eaten by the snakes evidently mistaking them for flying rats), and of course chiggers and spiders and mini things. Oddly, one species of jumping spider is found only on Spanish Moss. How specialized is that? Man, I wanna “only” be found on something that cool. …Magic carpets?
If you strip the thin outer layer off a strand of Spanish Moss, you’ll find a black filament at its core. Someone in the early 1900s did just this and thought what you are all no doubt thinking, “Car Seats!”
Before synthetic replacements made things more boring, Spanish moss was a bustling business, sold as upholstery stuffing for car cushions and mattresses. Even some of the Model T’s had it.
The notMoss filaments have natural insulating properties that keep stuff warm in winter and cool in summer. Remember that this was before air conditioning so the smallest difference was a coveted commodity.
So now your instincts are confirmed on the cool status of Spanish moss. And when you wake up to your stockings stuffed full of it you’ll take joy in knowing that instead of blah candy or trinkets, your stocking is full of chigger-infested, bat inhabited, quality insulation.
Happy holidays everyone!
Chelseaus schuyleridae is one of my favorite mini things that thrives in (not)Spanish (not)Moss. But beware, the Chelseaus can be devistating to native edible berry populations, if gone unchecked.
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Tell the truth. You have been waiting for an excuse to use that magic carpet photo for AGES.