Spanish moss combines beauty with function

A favorite signature southern plant of mine is Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides).  Gracefully draping the limbs of lives oaks and crapemyrtles,  this “air plant” lacks roots, relying almost entirely on atmospheric moisture and rainfall for sustenance.  It uses the limbs of its host for support.  The long, slender grayish-green stems and leaves of Spanish moss can reach a length of 20 feet.  They’re covered with dense trichomes that act like reservoirs to capture moisture and organic and mineral materials.  Three-petaled pale blue or chartreuse flowers are borne singly in the leaf axils in late spring and early summer.  Moths are attracted to the musky fragrance of the flowers.

After fertilization small fruit capsules develop.  When ripe they split open to release seeds that are outfitted with silky hairs. Dispersal is mainly by wind and to a lesser extent by rain. Reproduction, however, is primarily by vegetative by offsets and fragments that are broken off and transported by animals.

Historically, Spanish moss has been harvested, ginned and baled and used as livestock feed, garden mulch, mortar reinforcement, packing material, and mattress stuffing.  Before the advent of synthetics, Spanish moss was used in furniture stuffing.  In fact, it was exported to mattress makers in Europe and was used as stuffing in the seats of Henry Ford’s Model-T cars.  Inside the curly gray strands are long, black filaments that have the same texture and strength as horse hair.

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