What is Spanish moss?

Published 7:52 pm Thursday, January 10, 2019

This week I have the pleasure of being in beautiful Savannah, Georgia. for the Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Conference. This is one of the premier conferences on the East Coast that offers a wide array of educational sessions, a massive trade show and unbelievable networking opportunities.

By the way, did I mention it is in Savannah? I had the chance to take a stroll through the historic city early in the morning this week. Watching the sunrise of Forsyth Park and walking the cobblestone streets of Savannah even in the middle of winter, there are amazing gardens. One of the most majestic sights in the city are the numerous live oak trees with strands of beautiful Spanish moss lazily flowing from the wide, spreading branches and watching the sun’s glorious rays as they attempt to penetrate through the wall of Spanish moss to hit the brick path underneath.

In eastern North Carolina, we do not see as much Spanish moss. Sometimes we may see it draping live oaks or bald cypress trees but not that often. In Savannah and across most of the Southern states, it is very prevalent. But, what is Spanish moss? Is it really a moss? The answer is no, it is not a moss at all, it’s not even Spanish!

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is a bromeliad, a flowering perennial herb in the pineapple family. Most bromeliads, including Spanish moss, are epiphytes. Epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants but do not rely on them for nutrients. In the case of Spanish moss, it is just using the trees for structure. The plant actually has tiny cuplike structures that catch nutrients from the air and water such that it can make photosynthesis. Due to these structures, the plant has no need for roots. Instead, it uses part of the stem to wrap around trees, fence posts and even telephone poles. Spanish moss can even survive periods of drought by going dormant.

All too often this wonderful plant is given a bad name from folks who think it is killing their trees. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. It can be a sign that the tree is beginning to thin, though from other reasons stemming from root issues, nutrition issues or even natural maturity. The moss must have sunshine for photosynthesis, so it makes sense that it would establish in a tree with a thinning canopy. If you think your tree is having issues, a great place to start diagnosing the problem is with a soil sample. Soil samples give a basis for what nutrients are available to the tree. Soil samples for trees are taken around the dripline (average place where the branches end) of the tree. Take several cores around the dripline and mix them together in a plastic bucket. Place this mixture in the soil sample box obtained from your local Cooperative Extension office. Fill out the appropriate information on the soil form, and send it with the sample, to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture testing lab. If fertilizer or lime is recommended for your tree, be sure to spread it in a band around the dripline of the tree. This is where most of the feeder roots of the tree are located.

If you are having an issue in your home garden or landscape, send your questions to Gene Fox, please email at Gene at gene_fox@ncsu.edu. Learn more on Facebook at the Blacklands Area Horticulture page or visit the Extension Office, located at 155 Airport Road in Washington.

Commercial landscapers: put Jan. 29 on your calendars for an opportunity to earn CEU’s at the Beaufort County Extension Center. I will have more information on this event available in the upcoming weeks.

Gene Fox is a consumer horticulture agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, covering Beaufort, Hyde, Tyrrell and Washington counties.