Often incorrectly called a fungus, lichen or moss, Spanish moss is actually a bromeliad. Known botanically as Tillandsia usneoides, Spanish moss dangling from the branches of live oak trees creates the quintessential romantic landscape of the Old American South. It grows well in humid regions in U.S. Department of Agriculture winter hardiness zones 8 and warmer.
Spanish moss is native to a large expanse of North and South America, including the West Indies, in forests with high ambient humidity and mild winter temperatures. The natural range extends from the coastal southeastern United States into Mexico and Central America southward to the warmest reaches of northern and central Argentina and Chile. Aridity and cooler, higher elevations limit the natural range across tropical America.
Most people will recognize the more familiar common name for this plant as Spanish moss. But there are regional names for this same species: graybeard, old man's beard, Florida moss, New Orleans moss, grandfather's whiskers, long moss, air plant, Spanish beard and French wig. Botanically speaking, its old scientific name, no longer used, is Dendropogon usneoides, according to Floridata.
Spanish moss is a bromeliad, a member of the pineapple family, Bromeliaceae. Within this family, it is grouped into the genus Tillandsia. In general, Tillandsia species are commonly called "air plants" since they grow upon other plants for support and access to air, light and rainfall. These plants are also known as epiphytes, which translated from Greek means "upon a plant."
Gray and thin, the strings of Spanish moss leaves are silvery gray when dry and more gray-green when wet after a rain. The grayness results from tiny scales called trichomes that act to reflect heat and light and retain moisture in the leaf tissues, since the plants have no roots for water uptake. Strings of leaves can extends as long as 20 feet before sheer weight causes them to break. Although they are rarely seen, Spanish moss does produce tiny greenish-yellow flowers with four petals that are fragrant at night. The flowers occur in the warmth and high humidity of the summer or tropical rainy season.
Today Spanish moss is used as an ornamental plant in tropical gardens to festoon tree branches or to tuck around roots of other epiphytes like orchids mounted on bark plaques or wooden baskets. Dried Spanish moss is used as a decorative filler in dried flower arrangement or indoor potted plants. Historically, Spanish moss was harvested and dried and sold in bales to use for padding automobile seats, mattresses and soft furniture in both the New World and in Europe. It has not been heavily used for these purposes since the mid-20th century, according to Floridata.