Flora: Tillandsia usneoides

Spanish moss
Tillandsia usneoides

Spanish moss isn’t really a moss at all; it’s an epiphyte or air plant. Botanically, it is closely related to the pineapple and absorbs nutrients and water through the air and rainfall. It does occasionally flower but it is rarely seen. The silver-gray plant grows in long, hair-like clumps, hanging from trees in subtropical climates.

According to botanical guides, it has “threadlike stems up to 6 to 7.5 metres (about 20 to 25 feet) long. The leaves, also threadlike, are about 2.5 to 7.5 centimetres (1 to 3 inches) long.”

Spanish Moss growing on live oak tree, South Carolina

It is commonly found living on the southern live oak (Quercus virginiana) and bald-cypress (Taxodium distichum) in the lowlands, swamps, and marshes of the southeastern United States and can be found as far west as Texas and southern Arkansas. It does not harm or kill the trees it lives on.

William Bartram described it, and its uses, in his 1770s travels to the area:

When fresh, cattle and deer will eat it in the winter season. It seems particularly adapted to the purpose of stuffing mattrasses, chairs, saddles, collars, &c. and for these purposes, nothing yet known equals it. The Spaniards in South America, and the West-Indies, work it into cables that are said to be very strong and durable; but, in order to render it useful, it ought to be thrown into shallow ponds of water, and exposed to the sun, where it soon rots, and the outside furry substance is dissolved. It is then taken out of the water, and spread to dry; when, after a little beating and shaking, it is sufficiently clean, nothing remaining but the interior, hard, black, elastic filament, entangled together, and greatly resembling horse-hair.

In the modern era, Spanish moss has been used for building insulation, mulch, packing material, mattress stuffing, and fiber. It was even used in the padding of car seats by Henry Ford who had a home in Richmond Hill and a dealership in Savannah.

Popular Science, June 1937, page 32

The etymology for “Spanish moss” is not known although it is often supposed it is related to a term used by French settlers in the southeastern U.S. in the 1700s. They called it barbe Espagnol, or Spanish beard, referring to the long beards popular among Spanish explorers of the era. It has become an iconic image of the South, including in Southern gothic literature and in folklore.


Image from NYPL Digital Collections. Live Oak Avenue, Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Ga. Stereograph. 1880. The description on the reverse reads, in part: “The majority if these trees are of the Live Oak species, with but few others. The latter have long since passed away, but the sturdy oaks, with their hoary beard of moss, still defy the gales of the Atlantic and wintry blasts; and their rustling leaves whisper a ceaseless lullaby to the quiet and peaceful sleepers at their feet.”

Flora: Ilex vomitoria

Catesby, M., natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, ed. 2, vol. 2: t. 57 (1754)

Yaupon
Ilex vomitoria

This species of holly is an evergreen shrub and can be found throughout the southeast. It flowers in April and May and produces red berries in September and October. These berries are generous food source for birds, armadillo, black bear, fox, raccoon and more.

The plant is hardy can can thrive in salt spray, sandy soil, constant wind, harsh sunlight, and high temperatures. They are often found on streambanks, in dunes, woodlands and floodplains. All of these conditions mean it flourishes in the Ogeechee River basin.

Photo by Marcus, Joseph A., Austin, TX

Ossabaw Island, bounded to the north by the Ogeechee River, plays an important role in the history of yaupon. Yaupon is the only plant native to the Americas that contains caffeine. Early native populations made tea from its dried leaves and there are some stories of them using its berries in ceremonies and to see visions.

The popularity of the yaupon’s effects made it a traded commodity. Evidence of yaupon tea has been found as far afield as Cahokia, Illinois, near the Mississippi River. One of the places where yaupon could be harvested was Ossabaw Island. It was so plentiful that the Creek Indians named the island ‘asapo’, which translates as “land of holly” or “holly growing place.” There is evidence of natives used Ossabaw as a seasonal village, for harvesting yaupon and other foods, dating back at least 4,000 years.

Chief Saturiwa prepares his men for battle, from Plate XI of Jacques le Moyne des Morgues’ engraving of Fort Caroline”, Jacques le Moyne and Theodor De Bry.

Yaupon tea never gained popularity over traditional camellia sinesis tea when Europeans began moving to the colonies, but it has many similar properties. It contains antioxidants and caffeine, though its tannic properties are slightly different. There are reports of it being used as a substitute for coffee and tea during the Civil War. It eventually fell out of favor socially because it was readily available and became associated with poor, rural people.

Yaupon tastes similar to a light black or a green tea. Some local restaurants and beverage companies are now “rediscovering” the tea drink.

Flora: Nyssa ogeche

Tupelo, ogeche trees on the north Suwanna River north, Florida.

The Ogeechee Lime (Nyssa ogeche), also known as the Ogeechee Tupelo, is a member of the dogwood family. It lives in damp areas, near rivers and swamplands in the American southeast, including the Ogeechee River basin.

Native range of the Nyssa ogeche

With wide trunks and knobby roots, it produces a small fruit in late summer or early fall. Called tupelo limes, the fruit is often used in the place of traditional limes, including to make a lemonade-type drink and to make preserves.

WSAV image of specimen on Armstrong campus

The flowers appear from late March to early May after the new leaves have grown. These fruit blossoms are pollinated by bees which then produce the famous tupelo honey. Some beekeepers have planted the tree in order to encourage greater honey production.

Nyssa ogeche was named by renowned botanist William Bartram in the book Arbustrum Americanum published in 1785. Bartram visited the southeast, including Savannah, in 1773. In his travels he documented more than 200 new species of birds and more than 150 plants.