Kiawah River Flora: Spanish Moss

Garbed in elegant garlands of lacey Spanish moss, Lowcountry live oaks are a symbol of Charleston’s Southern charm. Their long, silver-gray swags swaying in the breeze give the impression that even the trees here display a penchant for eccentric extravagance. 

Despite its name, Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is not a moss, but an epiphytic bromeliad. Epiphytic bromeliads are plants that grow attached to other plants, usually trees. As an epiphyte, the Spanish Moss attaches itself to tree branches without causing harm, obtaining nutrients from the air and rain. And as a member of the bromeliad family, Spanish Moss is actually related to a plant that you might not guess: the pineapple! 

So why is it called Spanish Moss if it isn’t moss? Native Americans called the plant “tree hair,” a name they shared with French explorers in the 17th century. The curly, unruly appearance of the moss reminded the French of the long beards of Spanish conquistadors, so they dubbed it “Spanish Beard.” Eventually, the term Spanish Moss stuck. 

Beyond its visual appeal, Spanish Moss holds historical significance in the Lowcountry. As an integral part of the area’s ecosystem, it has played a role in the sea island’s cultural heritage for centuries. During the colonial era, the plant was used by Native Americans and early settlers for various purposes, including bedding, insulation and even as a material for doll-making. 

Spanish Moss also offers many benefits to the local ecosystem. It provides nesting materials and shelter for birds, insects and small mammals—contributing to the overall biodiversity of the sea island’s environment. Additionally, it helps regulate temperature and humidity levels, creating a more comfortable microclimate for both wildlife and humans. Spanish moss also helps to filter pollutants from the air, improving overall air quality. 

Spanish Moss not only delightfully decorates our trees, but contributes to the local ecosystem and fosters a sense of connection to the natural world. The next time you wander the trails of Kiawah River, take a moment to appreciate both the showy sensation and the gracious gifts that epitomize the Southern extravagance of Spanish Moss.