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.”

Fauna: Lepomis auritis

Redbreast sunfish by Duane Raver, 1975

Redbreast sunfish
Lepomis auritis

The redbreast sunfish is native to eastern North America and makes its home in freshwater rivers. A relatively small fish, it is considered full grown by the time it is two inches long. The largest one on record measured just 12 inches. They primarily eat immature insects.

Usually olive colored with dark fins, the male’s breast and belly will turn bright orange when spawning. The male makes a nest in sandy material, then guards the eggs and fry after the female lays. Auritis means “big-eared” in Latin and refers to the long tabs that extend behind their eyes.

Redbreast sunfish, caught in Georgia. Shared via Wikimedia Commons.

The redbreast sunfish thrive in waters with flowing current and a stable pH. They like to live in natural structures near riverbanks, like overhanging branches which offer shade and protected habitats. Clearing bank debris, lack of current, or a change in pH levels quickly and dramatically affect the population.

Flathead catfish, an invasive species, is a predator and decimated the redbreast sunfish in other nearby watersheds. Thus far, the Ogeechee and Canoochee Rivers have not been infested with flathead catfish.

Citizens are asked to report sightings of these detrimental catfish to Ogeechee Riverkeeper or the Georgia Environmental Protection Division immediately. Snap a photo and email to info@ogeecheeriverkeeper.org with the approximate location of the sighting.

Flathead Catfish, (Pylodictis olivaris): Mississippi River @ Goose Island across from Northeast Power ramp, Marion County, Missouri.

Fauna: Passerina ciris

Painted Bunting by Dan Pancamo

PAINTED BUNTING
Passerina ciris

The brightly colored bird is a member of the cardinal family and lives in the southeast and south-central United States, including coastal Georgia. Females and immature males are a parrot green color. At about two years old, the male’s feathers turn multiple tones of red, indigo, yellow, and more.

Color engraving by R. Havell, after drawing by John J. Audubon – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

They breed in maritime hammocks, scrubland, briar patches, woodland edges and swampy thickets. The females typically lay 3-4 eggs, twice a year. The fledglings take just a couple of weeks to leave the nest after hatching. The population is estimated at about 4.5 million, but that number is decreasing.

Painted Bunting (Female) by Dan Pancamo

The painted bunting was originally described by Carl Linnaeus in his eighteenth-century work Systema Naturae. The Swedish naturalist did a taxonomy of plants in 1753 and followed up with animals in 1758 and 1759.

Cover of Systema Naturae, 10th edition

Painted buntings are territorial and can be seen throughout the Ogeechee River watershed and nearby areas like Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge.

Listen to the call of the Painted bunting.