Tillandsia usneoides: Spanish moss

Family: Bromeliaceae
Common name: Spanish moss, Long moss, Black moss, Grandpa’s beard

No imagery of a haunted or dead forest is complete without thin greyish-green wisps of Spanish moss hanging in clumps from trees and logs. But these unique little plants are neither dead nor moss. They are also not from Spain.

They are epiphytic plants like orchids and anthuriums that can grow to a length of 4-6 meters, but interesting because they don’t have normal or hanging aerial roots. Nutrition is absorbed through the leaves, which are greyish-green, thin, strand-like, curved, about 3-5 cms long.

Though not conspicuous, Spanish moss plants also produce grey, brown, green or yellow flowers; and thin fluffy seeds which are easily dispersed by wind.
Spanish moss plants grow on large living or dead trees, hanging from the branches.

They are also seen commonly on dead trees, and it’s easy to imagine that they kill the host plants by being parasitic in nature. But they are quite harmless. These plants only use the hosts for support, and not for nutrition. But proliferously growing Spanish moss can cover a tree quickly and affect growth and photosynthesis of leaves.

These plants need good humidity and sunlight to grow, and prefer to sway in the wind so that they can absorb nutrition well. They provide shelter for snakes, bats, spider and many small insects that can live happily in the moist, fuzzy tangles created by the Spanish moss.

There are many variants like Silver ghost or El finito with fine grey-green leaves; Marurice’s Robusta with slightly thicker leaves; Odin’s Genuina with long silver leaves; Spanish gold with bright yellow flowers, Tight and curly with dense, curly leaves; Nezley, Kimberly, Old Man’s gold and many more with variations in leaf size and color.

Being epiphytic, these plants can grown without soil hanging on trees, logs, baskets or garden structures. But make sure you water them regularly, since they cannot absorb water from the soil like regular plants. These plants also need good sunlight and occasional fertilization to thrive, along with high humidity.

Spanish moss is used in making insulation, mattress stuffing, air coolers, garden beds, mulch, car cover padding, craft materials, and commercial packing material. Birds use these long strands to build their nests. They are also used as cattle fodder.

Propagation can be through seeds, but is easier done vegetatively by separating some strands of the plant and placing it elsewhere.

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