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February 2011 cover image A Wish for a Fish

Flora Fact: Nature’s Draperies

Spanish moss is neither a moss nor a parasite.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

As a high school junior, Caroline Wallace was thumbing through old photos of her hometown of Houston when a common element among them piqued her curiosity. “I noticed how more areas back then had Spanish moss,” she recalls.

So she conducted experiments to find out why. “I learned that acid rain and other pollutants can cause the species to decline,” says Wallace, today a senior biology major at Furman University in South Carolina. Ultimately, her research won a 2006 Young Naturalist Award from the American Museum of Natural History.

Neither a moss nor a parasite, Tillandsia usneoides is a rootless, flowering bromeliad (like its relative ball moss) that absorbs nutrients and moisture — along with toxins — through scales on its curly, narrow leaves. Native to eastern Texas (but also occurring elsewhere in the state), the gray moss — named after the long beards worn by Spanish explorers — drapes live oaks, cypresses and other trees that grow near rivers and swamps.

Many of those lofty festoons provide habitat for wildlife. Yellow-throated warblers and northern parulas nest among the tendrils, and two Texas bat species (northern yellow and Seminole) roost within clumps. One jumping spider (Pelegrina tillandsia) occurs only in Spanish moss.

Centuries ago, Native Americans made blankets, mats and ropes from the coarse fiber that’s left after stripping away the moss’s exterior layer (a few modern artisans have learned the lost art). More recently, Spanish moss was commercially harvested as stuffing for car seats, mattresses and furniture. For years, florists and crafters have used moss in floral arrangements and projects. (FYI to collectors: Moss hanging close to the ground may harbor chiggers! Boil small amounts to kill them.)

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