by Vince Bellis
On Saturday, February 22, 1701 adventurer John Lawson was ferried across Chatookau (Neuse) River by his Indian guide, Enoe Will. They entered what is now southern Pitt County. The next day they continued on through the Contentnea Creek swamps toward the Pampticaugh (Tar) River, “finding this day, the long ragged Moss of the Trees, which we had not seen in above 600 Miles” (p. 60, link below).
In his 1709 book, A New Voyage to Carolina, Lawson writes he first saw the “long ragged moss” in late 1700 during his journey from Charleston through the unexplored upcountry of the Carolinas. Lawson also describes the Indians’ use of moss as a diaper for infants, as thatch for covering their houses and as loincloths.
“…they bend the Tops [of wood bent into a circular cabin] and bring them together, and bind their ends with Bark of Trees, that is proper for that use, as Elm is, or sometimes the Moss that grows on the Trees, and is a Yard or two long, and never rots; [This results in a shelter from wind and rain.]” (p. 177).
“…to this [cradle] they brace and tie the Child down very close, having, near the middle, a Stick fasten’d about two Inches from the Board, which is for the Child’s Breech to rest on, under which they put a Wad of Moss, that receives the Child’s Excrements, by which means they can shift the Moss, and keep all clean and sweet” (p. 190).
“Some of the Heathens are so very poor, that they have no Manner of Cloaths, save a Wad of Moss to hide their Nakedness” (p. 203).
In 1710, Lawson sent a specimen of “long moss” to James Petiver, a London apothecary and collector of “natural curiosities.” This specimen exists today in the British Museum in London.
Spanish moss was commercially harvested as late as the early 20th century for use in stuffing furniture, as mulch, and for insulation. Small packets of moss are available today for floral arrangements and decoration.
Botanically, Spanish Moss is neither Spanish nor moss. Botanists describe this plant as an epiphyte, related to the pineapple. More specifically, the plant is Tillandsia usneoides L. belonging to a mainly tropical plant family, the Bromeliaceae.
Spanish Moss derives its common name from the plant’s early association with Spanish America (Florida). Since it appeared much like a moss, it was so called. Actually Spanish Moss is a flowering plant. Each small flower consists of three yellow petals, with flowers appearing in April. The flower develops into a capsule containing many tiny seeds.
Most bromeliads are also called ‘air plants’. That is, they make their own food by photosynthesis while depending on a tree or other tall structure for support. Botanists call such plants epiphytes, meaning “upon plants”.
Air plants obtain needed minerals from dust and rainfall. Spanish Moss appears gray because its leaves are covered with tiny scales that trap and hold water. After a rain, the leaves swell and the plant appears green in color.
A close relative of Spanish Moss is called Ball Moss. It is commonly seen on trees and transmission lines in Florida. Ball Moss looks much like its northern cousin, but is more robust and does not form long strands.
Even further south, in the Everglades, one can observe the true air plants with their conspicuous leaves resembling pineapple tops. They produce colorful blue flowers. It is only a short evolutionary hop to see how the pineapple is related to the air plants.
As of this writing (March 2013), Plant and See Nursery is displaying a wide variety of air plants that demonstrate this evolutionary transition.
Plant guide books give the distribution of Spanish Moss as the coastal region from Maryland to Texas and beyond. I have documented specimens from the area of Norfolk, Virginia through the Carolinas and Georgia. Along the east coast, Spanish Moss is largely restricted to an area east of I-95. Even then the plant extends much farther up river valleys than in the adjacent uplands.
Greenville marks the westernmost limit of Spanish Moss in the Tar River Basin. It is commonly seen along the South Tar River Greenway, at Green Springs Park, and at 10th Street where it crosses Green Mill Run. The westernmost location is near the US-264 bridge west of the city.
Vince Bellis is a retired botanist.
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