Focus on Natives: Live Oaks and Spanish Moss

Perhaps no image is more representative of the southern outdoors than a giant live oak dripping with Spanish moss. When you see one, you know immediately you’re south of the Mason-Dixon line, and you find yourself looking around for gators and stands selling “boiled p-nuts”. But there’s a real misconception out there that Spanish moss is bad for the trees – and I thought this post would be a good time to clear up that myth.

Southern Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) are native throughout much of the southeast, and get their common name from the fact that they remain green (live) throughout the winter. To fulfill their deciduous nature, each spring the trees lose their leaves and immediately grow them back. Like all oaks, it produces acorns – great for squirrels and other nut-eaters.

Live oaks are survivors. Many specimens are more than 500 years old, and one is even believed to be 1400 years old! They withstand floods, hurricanes, and salt spray. They even tend to survive fires, because fire rarely reaches the crown, allowing the tree to re-sprout vigorously from the roots.

This longevity makes live oaks the perfect spot for large growths of epiphytes such as Spanish moss ((Tillandsia usneoides). An epiphyte is a plant that absorbs nutrients from the water and the air. It does not take any sustenance from the tree in which it hangs, nor does it dig roots into the tree or “suffocate” the tree.

The “Old Senator” in St. Augustine is at least 600 years old – and Spanish moss doesn’t bother it a bit.

Basically, Spanish moss just needs somewhere to hang out, and live oak foliage leaches an especially high amount of the nutrients it needs. While excessive growths of Spanish moss can be problematic for unhealthy trees in high wind situations, in most cases healthy live oaks have extensive root structures that keep them in place during storms.

Spanish moss is great for wildlife. Birds use it for nesting material, and it provides shelter for creatures like bats and bugs, including a type of spider that’s been found nowhere else. Throughout history, humans have used it to stuff mattresses, as packing material and insulation, and even in the car seats of some of the first Fords. (This proved to be a problem when the red ants living in the Spanish moss made their presence known – they solved this problem in the future by boiling the moss first.)

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So really, y’all, there’s no reason for southern nature and wildlife lovers not to like Spanish moss just as much as the stately tree that it hangs in. Do you love Spanish moss and live oaks? Tell us why in the comments!

Every weekend, the Focus on Natives segment highlights a plant, bird, or butterfly native to the Southeastern U.S. Know of a particular species you’d like to see featured here? Make your suggestions in the comments section below.

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