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Whose Hair Is It?


There's an amusing story about one of the South's most emblematic sights, one so common that Lowcountry residents hardly notice it. During the Spanish - French exploration and rivalry for control of Lowcountry ports in the 17th century, French explorers asked their Native American guides about the scraggly growths dangling from live oaks and bald cypresses. Their guides' name for it translated as "tree hair", prompting the French to think of the ragged beards many of their Spanish rivals sported and leading them to name the stuff "barbe espagnol". The Spanish, on the other hand, preferred to call it "cabello francés"; but it was the French explorers' name that stuck and that, over the centuries, morphed into Spanish Moss.


An eastern Phoebe checks out nesting material

Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides), of course, is neither Spanish in origin nor a member of the moss family. Its closest relatives are bromeliads. It's common throughout the South and Southeast, as far south as Argentina and, to the north, Virginia. Nor is it a parasite, as commonly believed, but a flowering epiphyte that attaches itself to live oaks, cypresses and sweetgums but obtains its own nutrients and water from the air around it and from rain. It has no roots, produces tiny green or yellow flowers, and propagates itself via wind-borne seeds or fragments that break off and are carried by wind or by birds to surrounding trees. Also contrary to popular belief, the plant doesn't harm its host tree in any way, although thick populations on one tree may affect the amount of sun the tree receives and thus slow its growth.


During the Depression, sterilized Spanish Moss provided income as mattress stuffing.

Both humans and animals have found uses for Spanish Moss. Birds and squirrels use it to to line their nests; snakes, bats and spiders find it makes a congenial home or resting place. In Gullah-Geechee culture, it's said that putting fresh green Spanish Moss in one's shoes relieves high blood pressure; made into a poultice, it can be used to heal wounds, lower fevers and relieve chills. The plant's been used at various times as building insulation, padding for car seats and even as an ingredient in the manufacture of wallpaper. During the Depression, it was picked clean, steamed for sterilization, and used as mattress stuffing.


And there's one other story about Spanish Moss' origins, shorn of nationalistic jargon. It's the story of "The Meanest Man Who Ever Lived", who was so mean that no one wanted to cut his hair. It grew so long, it began to get caught on trees and gave us yet another name for the plant - Old Man's Beard.

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