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The Story of Spanish Moss

The Story of Spanish Moss

and its Relatives
What It Is and How It Grows


Raymond J. Martinez

4231 Airline Hoghway
New Orleans, Louisiana

Copyright 1959 by Home Publications


Printed in the United States of America

I am pleased to acknowledge that in the preparation of this work I have received most valuable
information and assistance from Mr. Alvin L. Woods, who is himself the owner of a large moss
ginning business at Lutcher, LA.

The Cover


Spanish Moss once grew in great abundance on the DUELLING OAKS in City Park at New
Orleans but it does not grow there now. The reason is not definitely known. It has been observed
that trees shading dwellings are always free of moss, and that is generally attributed to the fumes
or smoke which naturally arise from cooking and heating.

These oaks, in the lower section of the beautiful park, were known as "Chenes d' Allard" or
Metairie Oaks. They are on a spot which was once the plantation of Louis Allard, a man of
letters and a poet of considerable ability. That portion which is now the lower section was
purchased before his death by John McDonogh at a sale made for foreclosure of a mortgage by
the Citizens' Bank of New Orleans. McDonogh left it to New Orleans and Baltimore. The City of
New Orleans acquired it in full ownership at a partition sale

Here under these magnificent oaks was the "field of honor," where many duels took place. If a
man so much as smiled at the slight mishap of another or ridiculed him in any manner he was
likely to be challenged to a duel. It is difficult for a person of this generation to understand the
inordinate vanity of men of the duelling period of the history of New Orleans. An apology was
seldom offered, for it was almost certain to be refused. Indeed, a man had to mind his manners or


This grove of oaks at Chalmete, just below new Orleans, is believed to be the finest in existence.
The date the 79 trees were planted is uncertain but it is supposed that they are 150 years old.
They served as a canopy from the Mississippi River, which was the principal artery of
transportation, to the Chalmette plantation home, part of the walls of which is still standing.
Chalmette was the scene of the Battle of New Orleans -- 1812. Spanish moss hangs like long
beards from the trees. It has not retarded their growth.

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

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.

Beginning of Commercial Use

From the best information available, shipments of moss on a commercial scale began shortly
after the War Between the States, when the upholsterers in the furniture trade began to use it in
considerable quantities. This trade continued, and has been greatly increased since the value of
moss became better known.

Difference in Strength of Fibre

In the lower sections of Louisiana green moss has a light coat of bark and a heavy and longer
fibre. In the upper sections (over 100 miles from the Gulf) the bark is heavier, probably as a
protection against colder weather, and the fibre is much lighter, shorter, weaker, and not as
strong as the fibre from moss of the lower and more swampy section.

Why Moss is Desirable for Stuffing

No known insect will attack moss fibre, eat, destroy or live within it. Moss ranks next to curled
hair in resiliency. That is why it is desirable for use in upholstery. Owing to the large amount of
waste matter and the resultant loss of weight with each handling, moss is, contrary to current
opinion, not a cheap filler for furniture. It is used only in the finest and most expensive furniture
or cushions.


This building on Bourbon Street, New Orleans, was erected in 1806 as a combination residence
and business establishment. Today it is the famous Absinthe House, Spanish moss was used as a
binder for the plaster. This moss is in good condition today, after 153 years. Moss fiber seems to
be everlasting.

Durability of Moss

Moss was once used as a binder in mud clay or cement for building houses. Recently this mud
clay, bound with moss over 150 years ago, was broken up and dissolved. After being washed and
cleaned, the moss was found to have lost none of its resiliency.

Why Spanish Moss Varies in Rotor

The fibre of moss will range in color from a light brown to a dull black, jet black, and in rare
cases to a glossy black. The varying shades of color are due to the presence of humus in the soil
on which the moss is cured. On high and sandy land it is usually light in color. In low and
swampy sections and on black land it will cure into a jet and at times into a glossy black color.

Where Spanish Moss Grows

Spanish moss will grow only on a tree. It will not grow on vines, wooden fences, fence posts,
wire fences, telephone poles, buildings or any other place except a tree. It will not thrive or grow
on trees under which there is a cabin or a residence from which the smoke of a fireplace or a
stove arises, nor will it grow on trees except in the area indicated in this book.

Moss Mattress is Cool in Summer

Air readily permeates a moss mattress. For this reason it is most desirable in warm climates. It is
also the reason that a moss mattress is desirable for babies during the summer months—but for
summer months only. During the winter it is necessary to place paper under the moss mattress
and extra covering on top. This must be done in the case of adults as well as babies. It is a simple
matter to place heavy paper under the moss mattress in winter and take it away in summer. A
moss mattress is the coolest that can be used.


This building was constructed in 1795. Whenever a stand of moss is found in the plaster of the
walls it is in very good condition. Spanish moss was used frequently as a binder in clay for the
construction of buildings.

Is Moss Edible?

Spanish Moss fresh from the tree (before curing) is eaten by livestock during the winter months
in much the same manner that hay is consumed. The outer bark of the strands (of a greyish color)
probably contains some nourishment but not much. The fibre within this bark has no nutritive
value but it serves as bulk. It is very doubtful that any animal could survive on a diet of green
moss alone.

The Curing Process

Moss is grey when it comes from the tree; its color is a greyish white. It appears to be soggy or
damp. In this condition it is unfit for commercial use. Only the black, hair-like strands (after
being cured) are fit for commercial use. Curing is a long process. Some moss merchants or
gatherers make mounds of the moss about five feet high and ten feet around. It is kept damp so
as to cause the bark to decay and leave the fibre or hair-like strands free and firm. When this bark
begins to peel off, the moss is either spread out or hung on the fence to dry so that it can be
ginned. Other merchants or gatherers dig a pit and place the moss in it, thus hastening the decay
of the outer coating or bark. It is then treated the same as the moss cured by the mound method
before it is ready for ginning. The curing process by either method requires from three to four
months. The curing of moss reduces the weight by approximately 75 per cent.

The bark or outer coating of the moss rescued in the curing and ginning is a very valuable by-
product used as a mulch along with ordinary soil.

The waste matter in rough and cured moss will vary from 35 per cent to 75 per cent, and consists
mainly of earth, sticks or twigs, dust, dried bark or husk, leaves and weak fibre. Owing to this
waste matter almost every handling of rough moss entails a loss in weight. In recent years this
waste after being well rotted from 5 to 8 years is useful as a mulch around azaleas, rose bushes,
and other kinds of horticultural plants.


Production and Distribution

Moss is not produced or handled commercially in any states other than Louisiana and Florida.

Approximately 98 per cent of all commercial moss is shipped to upholsterers in the North, East
and West.

Annual Production

A large tree in a dense forest of Louisiana may produce as much as a ton of grey or green moss.
The weight is reduced about 80 per cent when the moss is cured. Thus, a ton of green moss
yields a quarter of a ton of ginned moss.

Spanish moss was once used only for packing breakable goods. But the upholstering trade soon
discovered that it was excellent for cushions. It is now used for cushioning the seats of chairs and
davenports for living rooms. Its uses in upholstering are, of course, unlimited.

Moss Gin Machinery

The ginning process of the cured or dried moss cleans out the twigs, dirt, trash, and all foreign
matter. The moss gin is a simple affair. The moss is first hand picked; that is, all the large pieces
of foreign matter, such as bark and lumps of mud, are removed. The moss is then placed on a belt
which carries it to a toothed cylinder revolving within a toothed concave, which is partly
enclosed in a drum. Fans blow out the dirt, the moss is loosened up, and the strands are
straightened. The moss is then baled and made ready for shipment. A bale of moss weighs from
125 to 150 pounds.

The Moss Picker

There is no such thing as a moss farmer. A man may own a farm on which there is a dense forest,
and may gather his own moss. But as a rule he either sells it or gives it to a moss gatherer. The
gatherer sells it to a gin already cured. For the cured moss he naturally receives a higher price

The moss gatherer goes from place to place picking moss where he finds it. As in every other
kind of business, some of the moss gatherers do well, even make good sums of money; others
merely eke out an existence.




Here Spanish moss is difficult to gather. Rafts and boats are used.

Peat Moss, Reindeer Moss and Club DIoss

Peat moss (or sphagnum), reindeer moss, club moss, and Spanish moss are not related.

PEAT MOSS is decayed vegetation found in bogs. It is formed by slow decay of plants,
sedges, reeds, the trunks of trees and rushes. It is an early stage in the formation of coal, and is
commonly used as a mulch. Peat moss is found mainly on the Scottish border on extensive beds
called peat mosses, occupying the surface of the soil or covered to the depth of a few feet with
sand and gravel. It is the common fuel of large districts of Wales, Ireland and Scotland, and some
parts of England where coal is scarce. From it are made lint and antiseptic dressing for wounds.
Under pressure it becomes so hard that machinery bearings can be made of it. It has been used to
line refriger- ators and cold storage rooms, and to cover steam pipes. In its natural state it is used
generally as a mulch for plants in shipping and also in hothouses and gardens.

CLUB MOSS is any plant of the family Lycopodium, or any plant which comprises creeping
or moss-like structure, such as the clavatum, the common club moss, and the ground pine, both
used as Christmas decorations. Club moss is also a fine yellowish powder consisting of the
spores of certain species of this genus, used in dusting on sores and on pills to prevent them from
sticking. It is highly inflam- mable, and is used in making fireworks and in producing stage

Spanish moss in rare instances takes over the tree. But in the spring the green leaves
will show themselves through the moss however abundant it may be.



Irish moss is a reddish seaweed found off the coast of Ireland. When cooked it yields a gelatine
which is used in puddings, or a jelly which, being easily digested and nourishing, is used for
invalids. A substance derived from Irish moss is also used as textile sizing. In sections where it is
found in great abundance it is used for feeding cattle. Some people refer to this seaweed as
carragheen rather than as Irish moss.

This particular weed called 'Irish moss" has no relation whatsoever to any other type of moss.
Peat moss found on the Dingle Peninsula (Ireland) is used as a source of heat, especially for
cooking and breadmaking. Some of the best meals ever served to kings or peasants in the British
Isles were cooked with peat. For some unknown reason it is a very fine source of heat for
According to Ripley, a peat fire has been burning in an inn in Pickering, England, continuously
for 150 years. The castle on a hill to the north of this town is a picturesque ruin. It was partly the
work of the Normans but the principal portions are of the 14th century. The story of the Fair
Rosamond* is connected with one of the towers. This same castle was the prison of Richard II
before his confinement at Pontefract.

* The Fair Rosamond was the mistress of Henry the Second, King of England. Many legendary
stories have been written about her.


Spanish moss is sometimes hung on wire to make a curtain for swimming pools,
outdoor dining areas, or drive-in-theatres.

Now you know all about Spanish moss !!!