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.
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.
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!
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!