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Extension advice: Is Spanish moss a friend or foe to trees?
Ashley Ho0pers ext agent
Ashley Hoopers is UGA Extension agent for Liberty County - photo by File photo

When thinking of coastal Georgia, the live oak and Spanish moss go hand-and-hand. Trees adorned with this stately looking plant embody a certain majestic quality.

Spanish moss is a part of southern living, so I thought it would be nice to unravel some of the mystery surrounding this unique plant while also dispelling some common misconceptions. For starters, despite its name, Spanish moss is neither Spanish nor a moss, but a bromelia — a fl owering perennial herb in the pineapple family.

Additionally, many people are under the impression that Spanish moss is a parasite that kills their trees. I am here to let you know that is not the case, as Spanish moss establishes itself on wires, telephone lines, fences and other non-living structures with ease.

“How can that be,” you ask? Most bromeliads, including Spanish moss, are epiphytes or “air plants,” meaning they grow on other plants but do not rely on them for nutrients. So, unlike the parasitic plant mistletoe, the only thing Spanish moss uses trees for is support.

Amazingly, Spanish moss does not have roots. Instead, it attaches itself to substrates by wrapping its spindly stems around a surface.

Once adhered, the moss amasses nutrients from the air and debris that collects on the plant using tiny cup-like, permeable scales that capture moisture and nutrients. Its ability to trap water allows it to survive dry periods, and the plant can go even dormant until moisture conditions improve.

Because Spanish moss is not a parasite and does not compete with host trees for nutrients or moisture, it is the position of University of Georgia specialists that the moss is not a direct detriment to the health and longevity of the tree. Regardless, UGA Extension does receive a number of calls about its removal.

Tree decline and Spanish moss appear to be correlated because once a tree’s canopy thins more sunlight becomes available, which is what the moss needs to grow. Therefore, as a tree defoliates you get accelerated moss growth.

Keep in mind that these trees are usually declining because of a different factor and the moss is simply taking advantage of some prime real estate that has recently become available.

Generally, if the tree is healthy, a natural balance is struck between the two species. Maintaining this balance is particularly important for young trees that lack a fully developed canopy.

Why do you see it on certain trees and not others? There are several reasons, some of which include a preference for trees with rough bark that allows for a good grip and large, well-spaced, horizontal branches. Two desirable hosts include the live oak and bald cypress.

If you want to remove Spanish moss, you can either roll up your sleeves and remove it by hand, or you can have an arborist remove it. Many homeowners remove moss from smaller trees themselves.

Another factor at play here is the moss will grow back after a while and “chiggers” are common residents, which may cause a rash on the skin if the moss is handled.

Finally, remember not all things about Spanish moss are objectionable. For many people, moss-laden oaks define the South and there is a certain charm associated with the plant. 

When it comes to Spanish moss, the choice is clearly yours: to keep or not to keep

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