Eerie, eerie stuff. All Southern Gothic and Edgar Allen Poetical. From afar it can give trees the look of cobwebs and tattered burial garments like a lovingly decorated cemetery set from a Universal horror film. But it's just a plant.

Its scientific name is Tillandsia usneoides, the genus coming from Swedish scientist, Elias Tillands, and the species name reflecting its resemblance to the lichen usnea. But it is only a resemblance—"Spanish moss" is neither Spanish nor moss. In fact, it's a member of the family Bromeliacae, making it a relative of the pineapple.

Almost more interesting (and certainly more diverse) are the numerous common names for the plant. It has been known as: Black moss, Florida moss, Graybeard, Long moss, Louisiana moss, Southern moss, Tree hair, Vegetable horsehair. Also, variations on "long hair," which is the translation of the American Indian itla-okla. The French in the New World referred to it as Barbe espagnole (Spanish beard), to which the Spanish countered with Cabello francés (French hair). The variation on that exchange has survived in the most common referent to the plant. Another taxonomic variant exists: Dendropogon usneoides (from Greek: dendro for tree and pogon meaning beard).

This perennial plant (thought by some to have evolved in the Peruvian Andes) is a native to southern North America (mainly coastal areas from Virginia down south and west as a far as Texas), the West Indies, and Central and South America (to Chile and Argentina). It requires a warm and humid climate—at least 70º (21.1º C) in summer and at least 60º (15.5º C) in the winter (that it can withstand frost is why it is able to grow as far north as it does). A common place to find the plant is in the swamp areas of the southern US—a swamp just doesn't look scary enough or "right" without Spanish moss draped ominously on the trees like some discarded spectral boa.

Spanish moss is an epiphyte—it requires another plant for mechanical support, but does not take its nutrients from the other plant (as opposed to a parasite). A favorite host is the oak tree. Another is the cypress tree. It can be found on telephone wires, fences, and poles but doesn't typically grow there naturally. The reason it's found on those places is usually that it was carried—via bird—or having been blown there.

This greyish-silver to greyish-green plant (the more wet and moist, the greener) is covered with small "furry" scales which it uses to trap moisture—and rain—from the air (which is why a humid climate is so important and why epiphytes are sometimes referred to as "air plants"). These hairy scales (trichomes) cover the whole plant and are so effective that it can absorb up to ten times its weight in water. This does present one of its dangers to its host (the other being that enough growth can block out sunlight and impede photosynthesis): enough weight and it can cause the breaking of dead—even living, in some cases—branches.

Nutrients come from photosynthesis and direct absorption from dust in the air (some comes from decaying humus on the bark of the tree. Because Spanish moss has found this alternate means of attaining water and nutrients, it has no root in a normal sense other than what is necessary to anchor it to the tree.

Spanish moss grows, draped over tree branches, with "stems" that can be as long as 20-25 feet (6-7.5 m). The leaves branch off the stem in "threadlike" fashion like tangled masses of fiber—the reason it reminded people of hair or beards (or moss). The "hair" grows about 1-3 inches (2.5-7.5 cm) long.

The plant does have little (many sources refer to them as "inconspicuous") stalkless flowers that bloom between April and July with yellowish petals. They are found at the end of the hairlike strands. The petals are usually not much larger than ¼ inch (6.35 mm).

Small seed pods with even smaller seeds form, which disperse by wind (or by the plant physically changing location before dispersal). The seeds will lodge in the cracks in tree bark (which is why the oak is so popular with the seeds of the plant) and put out small, temporary roots. From there—in about two weeks—small stems begin to grow out and begin to absorb nutrients and water. Vegetative propagation is also common, aided by the sorts of storms that occur near the coast (again, birds are also helpful in this regard).

While Spanish moss is not prone to infestation, it can provide a home for small insects (chiggers are noteworthy). Sometimes snakes will use the plant for shelter and two species of bats—the red bat and the pipistrelle—often use it to rest in during the day. A number of bird species (as well as some squirrels) use the plant in making their nests. One species of spider (Pelegrina tillandsiae) makes Spanish moss its only home.

The plant has had a number of uses in the past. It has been used to extend feed for cattle (mostly as bulk since there is little nutritive content) and some wild animals, like turkeys, deer, and horses have been seen eating it. It has been used to make clothing—in 1670, a traveler to islands where it grows, noted the locals were wearing "new roabs of new Mosse" (www.co.beaufort.sc.us). It was used to stuff mattresses and furniture, a practice (and industry) that lasted into the twentieth century, before the use of manmade fibers became common. It is still harvested (done as it always has been, manually with long poles) but use is mainly restricted to arts and crafts.

Colonists had many uses for it, as well, finding it made an excellent binder in plaster and cement and used it in the caulking material for their homes and cabins (recovered many years later showed the plant barely deteriorated). It was used as packing material and woven into things like ropes and bridles and even used to help repair fishing nets.

Medicinal use of Spanish moss has a long history. It was taken, while green, and brewed into tea for expectant mothers, supposedly to aid the flow of breast milk and make the delivery easier. Tea from the plant was also used as a folk remedy for rheumatism. In Mexico, it has been used to treat infantile epilepsy. In the early 1950s, it was used as an estrogen substitute and scientists have found the plant exhibits antibacterial properties. Drugs extracted from it have been used in the treatment of diabetes and researchers have been looking for a way to use it to help control blood glucose levels.

Still looks eerie.

(Sources: numerous sources were consulted, the following were especially helpful, www.co.beaufort.sc.us/bftlib/spanish.htm, www.sfrc.ufl.edu/Extension/scfor52.htm, oxbow.colstate.edu/moss.htm, www.bio.gasou.edu/Bio-home/Courses/environmental/leege/BOO/ghseontheweb/epiphyte/epiphyte5.htm

I was stationed in South Carolina at the heart of the Bible Belt. It was illegal to get tattooed within the state line and you couldn’t buy beer or gamble at the gas stations on Sunday. The little town of Beaufort, where my base was, had no draw for young Marines looking to have a good time which led most of us to Savannah. It was only forty minutes away, in the state of Georgia, but it boasted a night life that Beaufort didn’t have.

When I close my eyes and picture Savannah, I think of the tunnel-like streets, engulfed in Spanish moss. The historic circles with graven statues and small cemeteries. That’s something that always intrigued me about the South, there are tiny plots all over the towns. They’ll wedge them between a Waffle House and a Popeye’s. I understand that, chances are the graves were there first but it seems like there would be building codes against that.

The times I was there were mostly spent eating acid and running through the parks, hiding in historical monuments. With a warm Southern summer night against your skin and the Spanish moss blocking out the light from the moon, you could trip for hours. In the back of your mind, the somber thoughts of the old Southern voodoo rituals made the already corkscrewed evening all that much more frightening.

But in a good way.

The tea is sweet, the people are polite and the woman are beautiful but the nights are divine. Smoking cloves on the steps of the courthouse with my mind sideways from a mixture of mescaline and fine Irish whiskey, I’d watch the statues do what they don’t do during the day. Their movements were liquid but subtle as the shadows from old willows painted spider web shadows on their granite skin. I knew I’d never die if I stayed where I was.

The drive through the deserted streets is dream-like because the historic section empties out around dusk. We could be anywhere in the galaxy; everything is so detached. Only the moss from the trees remind us of our location. That stuff doesn't grow where I come from so we must still be in the South.

In Savannah Georgia

On our way out of town and on our way down.

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