SPANISH MOSS
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My first recollection of this mysterious looking growth on the oak trees beyond the sugar cane fields behind our home was my mother cringing every time my younger brother Bob, would throw down another huge clump of moss from high

 

atop this 100-yr old live oak. Mama was in the kitchen fully aware that we were up in that tree about 100 yards behind the house. Her fear each time was that Bob had finally fallen from the tree! Well we survived those years so long ago, I can’t remember; and if I did I wouldn’t say. Life was simple then and country children spent every daylight hour (and often after dark) outdoors; making great use of the “toys” that Mother Nature had provided.

Well, a few years later, I found out that the moss upon which we stuffed in our shirts, wore on our head, and bounced upon, was in fact a very useful product; had been for many, many years. In fact the early American Indians of Louisiana who had been here for more than 12,000 years before the Europeans settled, had used it extensively as bedding.

Before we discuss its primary use, let’s look at some basic facts. Surprise! Spanish moss is not Spanish and it’s not moss; nor is it a parasite sucking the nutrients from the host tree. The delicate tendrils of this member of the pineapple family lives off the moisture and nutrients carried through the air; much the same as bromeliads. The Spanish connection with the name is related to the bearded appearance of moss to the thick beards grown by most of the male Spanish settlers. The Cajuns of this time referred to it as barbe espagnole meaning Spanish beard.

Early European settlers desired more substantial shelter than many of the local Indian tribes and did not have the ability to build the type of dwelling used by the Indians. Most early homes were built from the trees of the neighboring forests; much the same as a log cabin. In order to insulate the home from pests, snakes, and cold winter evenings, they devised a method of mixing the Mississippi delta dark clay with moss (and sometimes oyster shells) and water to create a mixture that could be used to fill the air spaces between the logs or boards. This insulating mixture was known as bousillage(boo’-sah-laj).

Another common use developed from the Indians was stuffing hides or cloth with the cured moss to create a comfortable mattress. The process continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries; and even today, Spanish moss is sold commercially in stuffing certain upholstered furniture and mattresses.

The commercial harvesting of moss reached its popularity during the 1920’s when “moss pickers” would travel on barges or pirogues to pull moss from trees using a long-hooked pole. The moss was washed and then returned to a flat surface and laid to cure; losing it’s outer coating and exposing the fine, soft interior of the leaf. Once cured, the material was hung on fences or wires and allowed to dry. Eventually, the original product was reduced by two-thirds its original weight.

Prices for moss have ranged from one to seven cents per pound and the original moss pickers could average about 500 pounds per day. It involved the difficult work of push poling through the swamp, balancing the boat as he would reach high into a tree and pull clumps of moss down into his small boat.

So the next time a neighbor from up North (this happened to me) comes knocking at your door frightened that some apparently horrible creature is building this gray nest in the small tree behind her home, please reassure her that it’s not a nest at all; but a member of the pineapple family although not quite as sweet when it’s chewed!