Now that leaves have fallen, Spanish moss has become more noticeable. Long strands of gray hang from trees like tinsel near our abundant swamplands.
Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) isn’t a moss at all. It’s not even from Spain. It’s a member of the pineapple family, just like the colorful bromeliads and other air plants from the tropical rainforests. While this epiphyte may be kin to pineapple it has no nutritive value, so you won’t see it on the menu in any restaurant.
Many people think that Spanish moss harms trees like mistletoe does. This isn’t true. Spanish moss only uses trees for support and doesn’t invade their insides. It gets its nutrients and moisture solely from the atmosphere.
One reason I think people feel that way is that heavy infestations are usually on older trees which are nearing the end of their lives anyway. I’ve heard people make the same accusations about lichens. Fungi are another matter, and they definitely hasten the demise of trees.
Does the Spanish moss detract from the beauty of our landscape? That’s a personal decision. If it’s growing on trees naturalized on the periphery of the property I would leave it. If it’s growing in my fruit trees or on formal landscaping I’d remove it.
Removing one plant growing on another can be tricky. Most herbicides would be harmful to the plant you’re trying to save. Around here normally we are talking about oak trees. My recommendations are to wait until the desired tree is dormant. Now is fine.
First, strip the bulk of Spanish moss trees by hand. Next, treat the remaining moss with a solution of baking soda or Bordeaux mixture. Bordeaux mixture is an old fungicide used on grapes that is made from hydrated lime and copper sulfate. Many garden centers still carry it. These are relatively safe treatments for your trees.
If Spanish moss is not objectionable, it can still be harvested and used to cover the soil in your houseplants. I suggest treating it first to eliminate insects and other critters that might be living in it. Placing your harvest in a sealed plastic bag in the sun for a day or two usually does the trick, especially on hot days.
I remember collecting a bunch of it for decoration purposes years ago on Mill Creek in Perquimans County. I was busily yanking it out of the trees into my boat when a six or seven foot snake wound up on me. I almost leaped from the boat until I realized the serpent was just a black rat snake.
Spanish moss has a history of other uses too. Furniture builders used it for insulation and padding in chairs and mattresses. Birds and other wildlife use it to make nests.
It has even been used medicinally to lower blood sugar. The compound in question is called HMC. Japanese researchers have isolated compounds they say slows skin aging. Herbal medicinal use hasn’t been approved by the FDA yet. Research it more and talk to your medical professional before consuming any.
Crape Myrtle loaded with Spanish moss
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).