The Story of Spanish Moss
Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is an air-feeding plant or epiphyte found mainly upon cypress, gum trees, oaks, elms, and pecan trees in South Louisiana and Florida. It is not a parasite and does not live off the trees upon which it grows, nor is it harmful to the trees. It has been noticed, however, that its presence on pecan trees tends to reduce the yield, owing, no doubt, to the fact that to some extent it shadows the buds of the fruit.
When the French first came to Louisiana they asked the Indians what this hair-like plant was and were told that it was "tree hair," or 'Itla-okla," as they called it. The French thought it reminded them of the long black beards of the Spanish explorers who had come before them, and advised the Indians that a better name was "Spanish Beard, " or "Barbe Espagnol. " The Spaniards, consider- ing this a term of ridicule, asserted that a more appropriate name was "Cabello Francés," or "French Hair." The Indians thought "Barbe Espagnol" sounded better and for many years Louisiana moss was referred to only as "Spanish Beard." But this name did not last; it seemed too ridiculous. The accepted name became Spanish moss.
The Area in Which Moss Grows
This moss grows in the area comprising the extreme southern portion of Virginia and the Gulf Coast country from Florida to Texas in varying quantities. But its yield in commercial quantities is in the lower Mississippi Valley, and especially in the swamp lands of Louisiana and Florida or where the rainfall is heavy. Louisiana has an annual average precipitation of about 56 inches, and Florida has nearly as much. While high temperatures and high rela- tive humidity are favorable to the growth of moss, it can stand extremes of cold and drought for long periods.
Spanish moss is not propagated by seeds but by fragments or festoons. These fragments are carried from tree to tree by birds and the winds. Birds frequently use strands of moss in building their nests, and in this way distribute the festoons. Evergreen trees seldom have moss on them, for the green leaves tend to ward off the festoons carried by the winds or dropped by birds. In the fall and winter when the trees lose their leaves, fragments of moss attach themselves to the bark. A moss which springs from a festoon or fragment grows to a great length, often reaching 10 to 20 feet. In the early summer this plant produces a very small yellow flower, hardly visible to the naked eye. Moisture and dust from the air produce all the nourishment necessary to keep the plant alive and growing. The plant absorbs water readily; it is, in fact, about twenty-five percent water.
Uses of Moss
The fibre of SPANISH MOSS was originally used in Louisiana for mattresses, and in upholstering, and as a hinder in the construction of mud and clay chimneys. It was also used extensively for binding mud or clay in plastering houses. In more recent years it is used almost exclusively as a filler in overstuffed furniture and upholstery. Probably less than one per cent of the total commercial moss is now used in the manufacture of mattresses. Its use in mattresses is confined to the southern part of Louisiana, usually in the suburban and rural sections.
SPANISH MOSS (before and after curing) consists of an outer bark of a greyish color which protects the fibre within. This bark is mostly sap and vegetable matter and decomposes very rapidly when moistened sufficiently and placed into piles. Within this bark is a very resilient, wiry fibre which is the commercial moss used in overstuffed furniture, upholstery, mattresses, automobile seats, and cushions of various kinds.
Demand for Spanish Moss in Recent Years
In 1927 about 1200 carloads of Spanish
moss were shipped out of Louisiana, valued at about
$2,500,000. In 1940 about 500 carloads were shipped out
of Louisiana, valued at about $750,000. This steady
shrinkage in demand is owing primarily to increased use
of cheaper imported fibres, such as sisal from Mexico,
and the increased use of resilient rubber pads made in
America. The State of Florida, where moss is also
produced, has captured some of Louisiana's moss trade but
not much. It is estimated that at the present rate of
decline the moss industry of Louisiana will be negligible
by 1961, unless there is a promotional campaign of some
kind organised to increase the demand.
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