Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides)
Known locally as ‘Old Man’s Beard’, Spanish moss appears as masses of hanging feathery, silvery-green “threads”, often seen on old Bermuda cedars (Juniperus bermudiana).
This air-plant is part of the bromeliad family and not actually a moss. It is the most widely distributed member of the Bromeliaceae family, occurring throughout tropical and subtropical America.
Spanish moss has no roots. Instead, the entire surface of the shoot is covered with highly specialized trichomes (scales) which absorb water and nutrients from the atmosphere. It is an epiphyte (a plant that grows on another plant) and hangs in festoons up to 30m long. However, the apparent length of the plants is due to numerous shorter individual plants, usually 15 to 25cm long, which overlap each other. It grows in a zigzagging pattern, and tangles around itself and its support. While it is not parasitic its weight may damage the branches of its host tree and can slow down tree growth by blocking sunlight.
Tillandsia usneoides reproduces both sexually and vegetatively. It flowers in the summer, often abundantly, although the tiny, pale yellow-green to blue, solitary flowers are inconspicuous. The flowers last about four days and have a pleasant, subtle fragrance, which attracts a variety of insect pollinators.
The fruits are tiny, cylindrical capsules, which split and release the seeds the following winter. Seed dispersal is aided by delicate hairs, 1 to 2 cm long, which act as a parachute. These hairs are covered with tiny barbs, which anchor in the cracks of rough bark or other sites. (Source: Kew Gardens)
It can also reproduce by fragments of the plant being blown by the wind or by birds using it for nesting material. Spanish moss may own its unusually extensive range largely to powerful hurricane winds. Powerful hurricane winds may also have aided the spread of Spanish Moss throughout its extensive native range in the Americas.
Epiphytic plants such as Tillandsia usneoides are very useful as bioindicators for air quality. Since these plants obtain their nutrients and water from the air, their tissues contain nearly the same levels of elements, including pollutants, as the atmosphere they grow in. Research has shown that Spanish moss is a particularly reliable indicator of metal pollutants in the air. (Source: Kew Gardens)
T. usneoides yields a tough, elastic fibre from the non-living vascular tissues of the stem. This fibre resembles black horse hair and was once of major economic importance. To obtain the fibre, festoons of the plants were harvested from trees using long poles (up to a tonne from one tree) and "cured" by burying the plant material in pits or trenches until the living, greenish tissues decayed and only the black vascular tissues remained.
The resulting fibre was used as stuffing material for upholstery in furniture, cars and mattresses; it was also used in ropes and floor mats. Manufacturers in Liverpool were using Spanish moss imported from America as mattress filling in the 1840s. It has now been largely replaced with synthetic fibre, but T. usneoides is occasionally used in arts and crafts, in upholstery and insulation. It is a popular garden mulch and is used in the florist industry to hold moisture at the base of flower arrangements. It is also used throughout Latin America as a Christmas ornament.
Native American tribes used T. usneoides for livestock feed, as a binding agent in clay bricks and plaster, and for kindling. Women wove the fibre into the fabric of their dresses. It was used in medicine for a range of purposes, and has many uses in contemporary herbal medicine in Latin America. For example, preparations of the plant are used on haemorrhoids, abscesses and tumours, and are taken orally for heart, liver and lung ailments. Research has shown that T. usneoides has antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic activities, among others, that may support its use in herbal remedies. (Source: Kew Gardens)
Most of the information above was found on the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens Royal Botanic Gardens Kew website at www.kew.org. Kew is a scientific institution, using its extensive collections of living and preserved plants to form an encyclopedia of knowledge about the plant kingdom.