Here in South Central Florida our brief winter season quickly dissipates into breezy, beautiful spring days. As the last few days of the March bluster blow through, temperatures begin to moderate, and plants ramp up reproduction.
It wouldn’t be spring here without wispy tufts of airplants floating on the wind. Having flowered last summer and fall, the resulting seed capsules have dried out enough to burst and begin releasing their seeds to the breeze. Did you realize those clumps and drapes of Spanish Moss dancing overhead were perennial epiphytic plants?
Found throughout the Southeastern United States and the tropics, Tillandsia usneoides, or the commonly called Spanish Moss or Graybeard, is not a moss, nor does it come from Spain. This native flowering plant boasts quite tiny and mostly overlooked three-petaled flowers. Pull down a small streamer of this epiphytic herb and you are likely to see the yellow-green blooms growing from the axils or joints of the silvery strands.
That furry, almost shiny coating may remind you of spray snow décor, but it is not for beauty alone. The sparkly fur-like scales absorb moisture while also capturing nutrients flowing from rainfall run off above or blowing on the air. While some airplants have very simple roots to tether them to a host plant, Spanish moss has none. Unable to be parasitic to its host, when a moss-covered tree dies off, it is likely due to causes other than the presence of this epiphyte.
Heavy growth of moss can weigh down lighter branches or limit sunlight and for non-native trees causing some concern. Even so, the presence of moss provides extensive benefits. It is believed this unique member of the pineapple family plays a critical role in nutrient recycling.
If you choose to remove moss from your trees or other vegetation, be wary of disturbing nesting critters. Red bugs, also known as chiggers, often inhabit the plant and will cause itchy welts to those handling moss. Of more concern, several species of warblers and bats along with other creatures use clumps of moss as nesting sites.
On the strands you may see tough, brown spirals of three. Leftover from the year before, these are the outer coating or capsule of the plant’s seeds. Spanish moss, like most airplants, have nearly weightless seeds attached to silken hairs. When the spring winds blow, the silky parachutes float in the slightest breeze and wherever they land, the seeds begin growth once again. For this reason, removing moss will be an ongoing project. How much better to simply be aware and enjoy the uniquely amazing life cycle of this carefree, ubiquitous beauty.