Spanish Moss: Neither Spanish nor Moss
I clearly remember the first time we entered Savannah, and turned onto 37th Street, where we would be living for three months. Huge oak trees canopied the street and random rays of sunlight squeezed past the Spanish moss, which hung apathetically off branches like the embodiment of sorrow. Years from now, when I shut my eyes and think “Savannah,” Spanish moss washed in sunlight will be what I see.
Spanish moss doesn’t come from Spain. It’s indigenous to the Southeastern US, with a range between Florida, Maryland and Texas. There are a bunch of stories for why it’s named after the Spanish, but the most likely explanation is that the newly-arrived British thought this odd, mossy plant looked like the graying beards of their Spanish rivals.
And not only is Spanish moss not Spanish, it also isn’t a moss. It’s an airborne plant which takes its nutrients directly from the air. It’s actually a member of the same family as the pineapple, which is just bizarre enough to be true. Spanish moss doesn’t harm the trees it rests on, which are predominately Live Oaks and Bald Cypresses.
One of the first things we learned in Savannah was not to touch the Spanish moss, because of the red, biting bugs which live on it. Of course, this lesson was learned immediately after we had fashioned a “hilarious” moss coat for our dog, and wigs for ourselves.
I’ve often wondered to what extent the Spanish moss unconsciously influences life in the South. It fits perfectly in Savannah, creating an atmosphere of mystery and beauty, and it’s impossible to imagine the city without it.