© by teresamariedreams
artwork ≈ 7" x 13"
Division: Tracheophyta (vascular plants)
Superorder: Lilianae (monocots)
Species: Tillandsia usneoides (L.) L.
Common name: Spanish moss
Distribution: Southeastern United States, from Virginia to Texas; Central America; South America to Argentina and Chile; Caribbean; most widely distributed bromeliad species.
Habitat: Hammocks; pinelands and scrub; prefers moist, brightly exposed habitats and high humidity; can withstand moderate shade, extreme temperature fluctuations, and low rainfall.
Description: Epiphytic and rootless (seedlings initially have roots to fasten to hosts, but these roots disappear as the plants mature). Spanish moss reproduces by seed and vegetatively. Individual ramets are usually composed of 3 silver-grey to green leaves that are densely covered with trichomes, special cells which the plant uses (instead of roots) to take in nutrients and water. Ramets branch to form long, thick festoons that drape over tree branches or other hosts, including inert substrates such as telephone wires and wire fences. Flowers are small with naked sepals and 3 yellow-green petals. A single ramet produces 1 flower, which can produce 20 to 50 seeds. Seeds are umbrella shaped with comate hairs, a structure which allows the seeds to float gently on breezes until finding purchase on a host. The plants are also distributed by birds that collect and use Spanish moss to build their nests. It is often a misconception that Spanish moss causes its host tree to die; this is not true. Spanish moss prefers open, sunny habitat for growing and so it colonizes those parts of the tree that are open to the sun. As a tree grows, its lower limbs naturally die and the canopy structure opens up, providing sunny habitat for Spanish moss to colonize. When the tree has reached old age it naturally senesces and eventually dies; during this process, more area opens up for the Spanish moss to further colonize. In the end, the dead tree may be heavily festooned with Spanish moss - but the Spanish moss did not kill the tree; rather, the tree and the Spanish moss grew up together, with the tree gradually providing more and more habitat for the Spanish moss, and when the tree is dead, it continues to provide a home for its resident epiphyte. Humans have and still use Spanish moss for weaving textiles, to stuff furniture and mattresses, as ornamentation and decoration, for celebration and commiseration, for medicinal uses that range from treating coughs and fevers to liver, kidney, and heart ailments to dandruff, and as a bioindicator to assess pollution levels.
References Benzing DH. 2000. Bromeliaceae: Profile of an Adaptive Radiation. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
Luther HE, Benzing DH. 2009. Native Bromeliads of Florida. Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press, Inc.