Guest Article for the Tallahassee Democrat
June 21, 2013, Release for Tallahassee Democrat
Photo by Taylor Vandiver Leon County Extension Agent
By Sam Hand
One of the most visible signs of our local “Southern Ecology” is our Spanish moss. It has been eulogized in poetry, novels and song for centuries. It is closely associated with our mental images of the traditional “Southern Culture”, from the days of the great plantations to the present.
One of the most common questions asked about Spanish moss is “how did it get its name?”. No one seems to really know, but of literally dozens of fables, the one I find most appropriate (given its name “Spanish moss”) is that of a mounted Spanish Conquistador, who was pursuing an Indian maiden through a heavily wooded forest, and got his long black beard caught in the branches of an oak tree. The beard was torn off, and over the years it turned grey with age, and ultimately began to be spread by the wind from tree to tree where it began to grow and spread throughout the forest.
Another interesting fallacy is that Spanish moss is really a moss. This is incorrect. It is a bromeliad, and a member of the same family of air plants as the pineapple. It is not a parasite, but rather derives most of its nutrients from the air and rain. It is not very heavy. Many large oak limbs, when covered with Spanish moss, look as if they would break under the weight of it. In fact, many of these moss covered limbs may have only between twenty to fifty pounds of moss hanging on them. Given that live oak wood may weigh over sixty pounds per cubic foot, and that the limb may weigh over a ton, it is not likely that moss will contribute to the failure of a healthy tree.
Generally, trees heavily loaded with moss are not made more dangerous due to just the moss. However, in a declining tree, with weak or damaged limb structure, it may be possible that moss is the “straw that breaks the camel’s back”. If this is the case, then such weak limbs should probably already have been removed due to the structurally compromising defect.
In fact, many years ago, I had one client, a former state official here in Tallahassee, who had moss placed in his live oaks. He had a very traditional “southern style” home built on Live Oak Plantation Road, and didn’t feel the trees looked right without Spanish moss hanging in them. Those trees have not failed over the years due to having the moss installed in them.
Recently, homeowners have been calling the Leon County Extension Office to relate that individuals, representing tree care companies or pest control companies, have stopped by to suggest that they need to spray the moss in their trees or they risk the possibility of the moss breaking the tree or its limbs. Given the above facts, that moss is not really very heavy, and my many years of experience working in the tree care industry, I would not consider it necessary to spray moss in a healthy and structurally sound tree.
One valid concern of having a dense covering of moss in a tree that may be stressed, due to some mechanical injury or environmental stress, is that the moss may reduce the amount of sunlight available to the foliage of the tree, thus reducing the potential for photosynthesis to produce food (sugar) for the tree. This scenario could then lead to further decline of the tree. Moss itself is not the initiating factor, partly due to the fact that moss also needs light to make its food and a heavily foliated tree will, therefore, generally have less moss than one with less foliage, as it is better able to compete with the moss for light.
So, if you have questions about your trees or Spanish moss, or are concerned about the moss in your tree causing problems, you may wish to call or e-mail with pictures the Leon County Extension Office.
Sam Hand, Jr., is an Associate Professor and a member of the Extension Faculty at Florida A&M University. For more information about gardening in our area, visit the UF/ IFAS Leon County Extension website at http://leon.ifas.ufl.edu. For gardening questions, email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov