Dripping in long thread-like strands from trees and palms, Spanish moss is also given colloquial names like "graybeard" or "air plant." It is native to a vast geographical area of the New World, from the southeastern United States and Caribbean southward all the way to northern Argentina. A tropical to subtropical plant, Spanish moss tolerates chilly winters with light frosts. It is grown outdoors on trees for ornamentation in USDA winter hardiness zones 8 and warmer.
Place Within the Plant Kingdom
Spanish moss is a flowering plant and, therefore, is classified as an angiosperm. Within the angiosperms, it is further categorized as a monocot, which is a plant that sprouts only one leaf from the seed and has leaf veins that run in a parallel formation.
Spanish moss is described as a perennial evergreen. Perennial means it endures through many growing seasons (as long as the winter temperatures are not too cold). Evergreen refers to the foliage, which remains present in all seasons of the year. Lastly, it is referred to by horticulturists and ecologists as an epiphyte, literally meaning "upon a plant." Spanish moss does not grow in soil and does not have a root system like most other plants. Any thread-like plant tissue that may resemble roots are actually used to anchor the plant on another plant, such as a branch or tree trunk.
Spanish moss is a member of the pineapple family, Bromeliaceae. This plant family comprises about 2,500 different plant species native to North and South America. Among other members of this family, about half of all bromeliads are epiphytes, just like Spanish moss, or grow on rocks (then called "lithophytes"). The other half of all bromeliads grow in the soil with roots.
Spanish moss shares common physical characteristics with other bromeliads that are placed in the genus named Tillandsia. There are now over 600 different known species of Tillandsia according to the Bromeliad Society's (USA) publication "Bromeliads." Among the most distinguishing features of Tillandsia bromeliads are their often spineless, silvery gray leaves that are covered in tiny gray-silver trichomes (scales) as well as tiny flowers.
Spanish moss is assigned the species name of Tillandsia usneoides. "Tillandsia" makes reference to the 17th-century Swedish botanist and physician Dr. Elias Tillandz. This name was assigned to this related group of bromeliads by Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern scientific binomial nomenclature. "Usneoides," when translated from Latin means "looks like a lichen." The scientific name of this lichen is Usnea.