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WEEK THREE - Tree Beard

January 26, 2017

     If somewhere there exists a plant renaming committee and they take suggestions, I'd like to nominate Spanish moss for a redo. Despite it still being  a misnomer (and obvious Lord of the Rings reference), Tree Beard is a far better name for an organism that is neither Spanish nor a moss. A mile above sea level, my home town was much too arid to host this moisture-loving plant. We were't formally introduced until my mid-thirties, when I visited Savannah for the first time. I had already known about Spanish moss however, not because it was an icon of the South, but because the plant family it belongs to was one of my favorites. The family Bromeliaceae not only includes Spanish moss, but also pineapple and those air plants they sell at souvenir shops (oh, and over 3,000 other species). The point is that about the only thing Spanish moss has in common with moss is that they're both plants. As far as the Spanish part is concerned, it seems to have little to do with anything more than bickering with the French. 


     Out here on the island, it grows on everything. Even though most sources will tell you that it prefers to grow on pines and oaks (which we have plenty of), it can be found clinging to fences, bicycles...even the deer! That's probably because Spanish moss (or Tree Beard) doesn't have any roots. Instead of anchoring to the ground, it uses its wily tendrils to tangle itself up on a branch. Then, it absorbs tiny particles of water and minerals floating around in the air.  At night, in dim flashlight glow, it can be downright spooky; silently shifting in the breeze like the torn rags of a Dickensian specter (or a Dementor). With all of the ghosts floating around Savannah, I imagined finding a Deep South campfire story that involved the drifting Spanish moss, but did not encounter any. There is one legend that involves a lascivious soldier chasing a poor lass up a tree, but that's the solitary, albeit ubiquitous, tale. Maybe I'll invent my own, "See that clump over there? That is all that remains of the Lazy Intern..."


     Although it drapes most of the island, I don't find it a nuisance. Spanish moss isn't a parasite and takes nothing but support from the oaks it clings to. In fact, it provides habitat to all kinds of critters from birds to bats. There's even a jumping spider that's found nowhere else but on this plant. According to the USDA's plant guide, Spanish moss can be very useful to humans too. I don't know about stuffing my mattress with it, but I might try boiling it if I get a cold. It's terribly inconvenient for me to pop to the store for NyQuil. 




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