I don’t know about you, but I love Spanish moss.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a Southerner, but those gently swaying gray beards always touch a chord in my spirit, and I’m briefly reminded of languorous belles in hoop skirts, sweet tea served on summer porches, charming drawls like molasses. One night while walking in my neighborhood, my eye caught yet again by moss illuminated in a streetlight, I was inspired with an idea for a poem about it. And I’m not the only one – Canadian troubadour Gordon Lightfoot even wrote a song about it.
To be sure, Spanish moss is neither Spanish nor moss, but an air plant in the bromeliad family, and there are differing versions of how it came by its present name. One has it that French visitors to Louisiana found it reminiscent of the long beards of Spanish explorers who’d preceded them, christening it “Barbe Espagnol.” The Spanish, less than flattered by the comparison, fired back with “Cabello Frances,” or French Hair. But the French descriptive stuck for years, eventually morphing into Spanish moss. Other sources say the name comes from an old folktale about a Native American woman who died, leaving a grief-stricken husband who cut off her braids and hung them in a tree, where they turned into Spanish moss and served as a reminder of her death, and his sorrow.
Whatever the case, not everyone has an affinity for that gentle sway. In Hope Dahle Jordan’s 1973 novel “Three Desperate Days,” seventeen-year-old Julie Jameson hates the limpness of moss, which seems to symbolize her weakness and insecurities. And some homeowners call in professionals to remove it. But I side with the Internet commenter who noted that “Oak trees without Spanish moss look lonely and cold to me, like they need someone to bring them a shawl.” The poet in me smiles at that description.
For a while I thought this homely grey bromeliad had a medicinal purpose. In Conrad Richter’s novel “The Trees,” Sayward Luckett’s younger sister, Achsa, comes down with a fever that is plaguing nearly all the nearby settlers, and as her temperature steadily climbs, Sayward wishes she had some of her mother’s “moss lemonade.” She knows nothing of it except that it has to be washed “in three waters” and “nothing could cool a fever quicker.” But her mother, Jary, has recently died, and the secret of moss lemonade with her.
Now isn’t that interesting, I thought, though for the life of me I couldn’t fathom how the curlicue plant, pulled from a tree limb, could ever produce anything like a lemony taste no matter how it was prepared. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered years later that the moss in question was “Irish” and not a bromeliad at all, but a seaweed. (For the record, the bottom of the growing tips of Spanish moss is edible, but nearly tasteless. And no, I haven’t tried it. I was afraid a neighbor might notice.)
But that doesn’t mean the tree-growing stuff has no other function than to sway gracefully in the wind. Fishermen used it to mend nets and early colonists mixed it with mud to caulk their cabins. Carmaker Henry Ford upholstered his Tin Lizzies with it. Then there was my friend Carol, who cross-stitched a standing Santa figurine and stuffed it with moss. “But you have to bake it at 350° first,” she informed our weekly embroidery group, “to kill all the bugs.” Oh, yes…tiny insects chewing their way through your carefully selected fabric and threads would indeed be an unpleasant experience. And let’s not overlook Dawn Klug of Floral City, Florida, who literally made Spanish moss into a one-woman industry after her son showed her an article about saddle blankets woven from the plant. Ms. Klug bought a loom and taught herself a nearly dead art, selling her work to collectors and Civil War reenactors. She may well be the last practitioner.
Finally, while boiling the gray stuff won’t yield lemonade of any sort, you will brew what Klug calls “an amazing fertilizer” for your homegrown vegetables. Think how much money you could save by pulling it right off your trees – or your neighbor’s. I doubt they’d mind. Especially if you saved them the cost of a professional call.
How about you? Do you find “Barbe Espagnol” to be romantic? Useful? Edible? A source for crafts? Or a “sticky, spidery, ugly-looking parasite” that strangles trees? (Breathe deep, blogger Trudy! It’s not a parasite, nor will it kill your trees.) Write me and let me know.
And if you ever get a yen for whipping up some moss lemonade when you have a fever or respiratory ailment, here’s a recipe from the 1896 Boston Cooking School Cook Book. Let me know if it works!
- 1/4 cup Irish moss
- 2 cups cold water
- Juice of one lemon
Pick over and soak Irish moss in cold water to cover. Remove moss, add two cups cold water, and cook 20 minutes in double boiler; then strain. To one-half cup of liquid add lemon juice, and sugar to sweeten.