Helpful Spanish Moss

Spanish Moss Hanging from Cypress Tree

With summer rapidly approaching, thoughts of hot days, trips to the beach, and dreaded high humidity loom large in the mind. But while high humidity can make us feel like we’re smothering, one member of the plant kingdom actually thrives on the damp air. Tillandsia usneoides, or Spanish moss, depends on the moist air for its survival.

Spanish moss is abundant in our state, especially in South Louisiana where live oaks and bald cypress abound. Most commonly seen on those two trees, the ghostly-grey tendrils might also be seen on crape myrtles and, less commonly, in pine trees. (When seen growing in other tree species, one can safely assume that the moss was blown there by the wind, transferred by birds, or put there by human hand.) It is this signature look that is most likely responsible for the plant’s name: the long, hanging fibers reminded the French of the beards of their Spanish enemies.

No matter where it hangs, Spanish moss’ reputation suffers under two misconceptions. In the first place, this wispy plant is really not a moss at all. Rather, it is an epiphyte—a member of the bromeliad and pineapple family. Moreover, this utilitarian plant is also wrongly accused of harming its host tree. Such is not the case, as the plants are not parasitic, instead taking nutrients from the moist air and dust particles. When you come right down to it, Spanish moss is nothing more than a simple air plant, living in a symbiotic relationship with the trees.

Spanish Moss

Not only is the plant completely benign, it has also been most helpful to man. Not as much in today’s memory-foam society, but Spanish moss was once the mattress and pillow stuffing of choice by Native Americans and early settlers. Some historians record that the old saying “Don’t let the bed bugs bite” comes from this practice. However, botanists dispute the idea that bed bugs live in the moss, noting that only one species of hopping spider calls the moss home. Bug-ridden or not, our ancestors eliminated the problem by soaking the moss in water and then drying it in the sun before use.

In later years, Henry Ford capitalized on the abundance of this cheap resource by stuffing the seats of Model Ts with it. Eventually, both American and European furniture makers jumped on the Spanish moss bandwagon by stuffing chairs and couches with it.

Historically, Houma Indians also used the moss in their home building. They wove the moss into strands, which they then twisted into ropes. These ropes were used to lash together the native willow branch poles that formed the framework of their palmetto huts. Eventually, Native Americans advanced to a wooden-slat construction method, filling the cracks between the vertical boards with a mixture made from Spanish moss and mud.

The early French and Cajun settlers moved in and adapted the moss-and-mud mixture to their traditional building methods, calling the material bousillage. Packed between the wooden wall planks, bousillage served as a binder and insulator. This natural mixture worked well to keep these pre-civil war homes cool in the hot summer months. Today, examples of bousillage construction can still be seen in structures like those at Destrahan Plantation.

Amazingly, the usefulness of Spanish moss does not stop with upholstery and home building. Women of the early Louisiana Indian tribes—Natchez, Houma, and Tunica—are recorded as having worn fringed aprons made of twisted Spanish moss fibers. For the twisting, they used a wooden device called a tarabe, which is believed to have been introduced by the Spanish. Other Louisiana tribes, including the Koasati, are evidenced to have woven the Spanish moss fibers on a rudimentary loom, making blankets sometimes referred to as saddle blankets and mats.

By now, we might agree that Spanish moss is probably one of the most under-recognized and under-appreciated plants in Louisiana’s history. If you are not yet duly impressed with its versatility, how about a couple more examples?

This flowering plant was used to make a medicinal tea to treat fever, chills, and arthritis. It can be used as feed for horses and cattle and works great for mulching the flowerbed. It can also be used to start a fire. (Native people made flaming arrows by wrapping the dried moss around their arrows and setting them on fire.) Today, Spanish moss still grows in the wild, but it is also grown commercially for use in flower arrangements and as packing material.

Mary's Moss Dolls

Houma Indian Craft – Moss Dolls made by Mary Verret

Lastly, and my personal favorite, is the use of Spanish moss to make “moss dolls.” Now gone from this earth, my good friend and Houma Indian Mary Verret told me the story of how, as a poor little girl, she sat beneath a live oak tree and created her own little dolls out of the dried, black Spanish moss. The best thing about the dolls was that when it was time for her to work, she placed her dolls against the trunk of the tree where they remained, unaffected by the weather, until the next time she played with them.

In her later years, Mary resurrected her love for these old playmates, making moss dolls for her grandchildren. She even fashioned beautiful, handmade Native American garments for them. Her moss dolls soon gained recognition by museum curators and at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The tradition is carried on by her granddaughters today.

From home building to doll making, one would never suspect that those eerie trails of Spanish moss hanging from the oak and cypress played such an important role in Louisiana history.

Spanish moss, the simple air plant, so totally misrepresented and misunderstood, has made a real name for itself, touting a history reaching across time from Native Americans and early explorers to French immigrants and American inventors. What other native plant can say the same?

Now you know just about all there is to know about this amazing plant!

BW

Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association

This article first appeared in Country Roads Magazine in May, 2014 and received a 1st Place Excellence in Craft Award for Magazine Short Feature from Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association, August 2014.

 

 

PS  I thought someone might want to do a little online shopping.  Redfish Notebook. $10. This item is designed AND made by my friend, Ellen McCord, including the redfish on the cover. Please tell her the Bayou Woman sent you! 

You may also like...

Comments

Helpful Spanish Moss — 12 Comments

  1. Oh my, I remember the stuffing in old furniture and seats. If one had a tear, and was sat on, I got the point. Literally. My grandparents had sofas and chairs that used the Spanish Moss as stuffing and some of upholstery had tears and cracks. I know one old ladderback chair had a handmade, stuffed leather seat and the leather was so old it had become very thin and hard. It cracked and I did not like being placed in it. OUCH!

  2. I recall, we use to gather moss and sell to a man that came and bought it. We had a team and wagon and used long cane poles to gather the moss. I don’t think we got much money for it because we never had much. But I can tell you that we had a really good happy life. Loved your post. Bill

    • Bill, thanks for sharing your memories. I could sit and listen to your stories for hours. And while I’ve never gathered like you did, I can certainly appreciate the hard work and the fact that you remember a good, happy life!

  3. When I was a kid, we used to visit my great-aunt Fannie in Baton Rouge. She lived out on Harrell’s Ferry Road on the east side of town. They had a pretty good piece of land. I remember pecan trees, and lemon trees, and a tire swing. They had a sleeping porch where we kids liked to stay, and I remember having mattresses stuffed with moss. I don’t remember any bugs, either. I think I’ve heard (did you tell me?) that as long as you get moss that hasn’t had contact with the ground, it’s ok to use.

    Also, in Breaux Bridge, the old City Hotel has a section cut out of the wall in the front room so you can see the bousillage. I used to have a photo of it, but it seems to have disappeared. Either that or I just filed it under a name I can’t remember. I found the rest of the photos, but not that one.

    • Another GREAT memory, Linda! I didn’t tell you that about the moss not coming in contact with the ground, but it does make sense to me! I don’t have an original of bousillage or I would have posted it within the piece for y’all. The original publication of this article only used the dolls photo, but I like to use all I can for our blog family of readers!

      • There are a few videos on U-Tube that show usage of bousillage and homes/buildings that use it. Also one of them shows the gathering of the moss for use. I watched one that was very interesting.

  4. As a little girl, I can remember seeing people harvest moss with long poles. Most people would hang it to dry over fences in their yards. I also remember it getting scarce in areas around Pierre Part. I guess it was over harvested. It took a long time to make a come back.
    I’ve seen yards where people have hung some in Magnolias and pine trees to get it to grow. It’s just not natural to me. It belongs in Live Oaks and Cypress trees.

    • You’re right, Steph, it just doesn’t look right hanging on those other trees! On my tour route into the swamp, though, some swamp maples have grown up within the anchoring system of the cypress, and because they dwell so closely together, the maples now have moss on them all the time. I’ve come to accept that!

  5. I love this article and I love Spanish moss. This was very interesting and I learned a lot of facts about the moss that I had never heard.

    • So glad you enjoy the piece and that you learned something new! That’s my goal with articles like this one! To educate folks and to increase an awareness of and appreciation for the beauty of what we stand to lose down here is coastal restoration isn’t done soon enough.

  6. I tried to get some moss to grow on my swamp maple. Didn’t take. Loved the story of the dolls. How cute are they, huh?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *