Spanish Moss On Your Oak Tree: Here’s What To Do

Lines of old live oak trees with spanish moss hanging down on a scenic southern country road

Spanish moss, an epiphyte, a flowering air plant; whatever you know, this plant is a common plant to see growing on oak trees. The signature wispy tendrils and hanging vines make this plant easy to recognize. 

Spanish moss is an epiphyte which means that it is an air plant and does not rely on its host for nutrients. Instead, Spanish moss gets its nutrients from the water and other particles in the air around it. Spanish moss is generally fine to leave on your oak tree unless it’s weighing down branches.

Is Spanish moss a good thing or a bad one? Should it be removed or left alone to flourish? Truthfully, it depends on your tree and your own situation. Spanish moss is not intrinsically harmful to oak trees, but there are some factors to be aware of. 

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Should You Remove Spanish Moss From Oak Trees?

To keep it short and sweet: no. It is not necessary for you to remove Spanish moss from any oak trees. Unless you simply prefer the look of a tree without it, you do not have to worry about Spanish moss negatively impacting your oak tree.

Spanish moss uses its long stems to wrap around an oak tree and, to the naked eye, could look menacing. You might fear that this plant is taking nutrients from your beloved tree, and that is not something most people view fondly. 

However, this is not the goal of Spanish moss. In fact, the University of Florida IFAS Extension tells us that Spanish moss is not moss at all. Instead, Spanish moss is a bromeliad which is a plant more akin to popular houseplants and is even related to pineapple!

You may be reading because you were concerned that this plant was going to destroy your oak, but you also may just be curious to learn more about how Spanish moss works and what you can expect from it. 

So, without further adieu, let’s talk Spanish moss.

Closeup tillandsia usneoides spanish moss hanging from tree branches

What Are Some Benefits Of Spanish Moss?

Spanish moss is really the opposite of a parasite in the sense that it helps the organisms near it. 

The only occasion where Spanish moss might not be great for a tree is if the tree is already dying or declining, in which case the harmless flowering plant may weigh down the brittle branches a bit too much.

However, the pros actually do outweigh the cons, in a funny change of pace from what we usually expect when we hear about a foreign entity growing on our oak trees. 

Animals Use Spanish Moss For Protection

Animals tend to take cover in the thick growth of Spanish moss because it helps protect them from elements such as rain, wind, and cold temperatures. 

Birds like to use Spanish moss to build up their nests due to the soft yet clumpy material that pairs quite well with other nest-making resources. 

Spanish Moss Can Withstand Droughts

The way that this plant works is that it can hold on to the water for long periods of time, thanks to the lack of roots or connection to the soil.

The tissues of the Spanish moss can hold more water than the plant needs at a given time, which allows it to store up some extra resources in the same way that squirrels hoard acorns or deciduous trees lose their leaves in order to retain water. 

Spanish Moss Adds Color To A Tree

When all else fails, you can count on Spanish moss to add a pop of deep green to your space. Unless there has been an extremely dry period and the water is used up, which turns the plant to a grayish hue, you can expect Spanish moss to be a beautiful shade of green.

Does Spanish Moss Hurt Oak Trees?

There is really not much that Spanish moss can do to hurt an oak tree. The only potential difficulty Spanish moss may pose is to a tree whose limbs are fragile for whatever reason. Since this plant uses an oak tree for support, too much of it may work to weigh down weak branches. 

In fact, trees that are already dying or declining usually see the weakening of branches and the thinning of leaves. Once the canopy is more sparse, the environment for Spanish moss to grow is even better as more light is let in through the remaining leaves.

So, the older a tree gets, the more of a potential issue Spanish moss may become.

If you know if your oak tree is weakened, take a look at our guide on what may be wrong with your oak tree.

If you think about it, Spanish moss could hypothetically grow at a rapid rate and create shade that would inhibit leaves and new branches from growing on an oak tree. That’s the hypothetical viewpoint.

Realistically, and based on what usually happens, healthy oak trees grow much faster than this air plant and are much too large to feel an extremely negative impact of Spanish moss.

If you want to have Spanish moss removed, we recommend that you find a trained arborist near you to ensure that you do not damage your tree in the process.

Spanish moss on the trees in the city park of new orleans louisiana usa

Why Does Spanish Moss Grow On Live Oaks?

It’s plain and simple, really.

Spanish moss grows on live oak trees because they provide a stable environment for the air plant to survive and flourish. Oaks are tall, sturdy, and adaptable trees – the perfect conditions for Spanish moss to hang and grow.

We mean that both figuratively and literally, by the way. Don’t forget that Spanish moss hangs from the branches of oak trees. 

The way that Spanish moss hangs allows it to pick up moisture and nutrients from the air around it. This plant prefers a moist environment; though, as we’ve discussed, they can also keep up with the best of ‘em in a drought.

Even though Spanish moss is pretty adaptable itself, it prefers a host that is also going to be a safe bet. The longevity of an oak tree means that it survives natural disasters frequently, and most live lives that span from hundreds to a thousand (or more, in some cases) years. Talk about resilience!

If you’re not sure about what type of moss is on your oak tree, take a peak at our oak oak tree moss identification guide here.

How Quickly Does Spanish Moss Grow?

Spanish moss grows at a rather acceptable rate.

Spanish moss, like most other air plants, can grow about 4 to 8 inches per year. That may sound like nothing at all, but keep in mind that this is a relatively small, wispy plant that hangs from the branches of trees.

On the other hand, in comparison to a tree, that is nothing. So, when we say that an oak tree is going to grow much more quickly than Spanish moss and that an infestation is highly unlikely to slow down the growth of the oak, that is what we mean.

Does Spanish Moss Act As A Parasite?

You may be thinking this because of mistletoe and how it can take away nutrients from a tree over time.

In truth, Spanish moss is actually considered an air plant which means that it gets its nutrients from the air and not the organism it is living on, like your oak tree, for example. Spanish moss is not parasitic to trees.

Spanish moss tends to live on trees because they are tall and can eventually offer a good boost to get water, fog, debris, dust, pollen, and other airborne sustenance. 

If there is no water in the atmosphere and not enough rain, Spanish moss will fail to sustain itself. Even in cases like this, it would be unable to take on parasitic qualities if it tried (which it doesn’t.)

Light and moisture themselves seem to be much less important than what nutrients the Spanish moss can accumulate from the air around it.

It’s all well and good that Spanish moss isn’t going to damage my oak tree, but what is it actually used for? Are there any ways I can utilize this plant?

Glad you asked, yes! There are some pretty cool ways that Spanish moss is utilized once it is removed from an oak tree.

What Can You Do With Spanish Moss?

Spanish moss hanging from oak tree

Spanish moss can be used for a wide array of things, from industrial materials to decorative placements.

If you have Spanish moss growing on your tree, it can be utilized for many things. If this becomes a factor in an area where you have many trees, the moss could be harvested for use on a larger scale. 

Luckily, we won’t leave you hanging around like Spanish moss. We’re going to give you some examples of the way that this moss can be used in everyday life.

Spanish Moss Can Be Used As Stuffing And Packing Material

Some years ago, Spanish moss used to be a big name in the stuffing materials field.

Thanks to the University of Florida’s IFAS Extension, we know that Spanish moss was commonly chosen to produce the stuffing for the seats in cars, cushions on couches and other furniture, and even mattresses. 

Imagine you get home from a long day at work; you’re driving in your car and looking forward to sitting on the sofa to watch some TV before bed. At one point in time, all of those seats and places of rest alike could have been stuffed with the same thing: good ol’ Spanish moss. 

Now, in a more modern era, Spanish moss is more commonly used as stuffing or packing material that does not necessarily relate to furniture and or other places you’re likely to sit or lie down on.

Surely that’s not all that Spanish moss has been used for, right? 

Right!

Spanish Moss For Insulation And Bousillage

Before the age of using Spanish moss as a packing material more than furniture stuffing, there was another household use.

The National Center for Preservation Technology and Training can teach us a thing or two about the way that Spanish moss was used as insulation. Bousillage is the name of a type of construction method local to Lousiana, one of the hot spots for Spanish moss to reside. 

Blending multiple cultural traditions, both French and Native American, much like the culture of the state, resulted in a technique that combines Spanish moss and clay to create a mixture that fills in cracks and crevices of buildings. 

This is quite an old technique and one that takes time, patience, and some skill, but it is a wonderfully historical process to learn about. 

Spanish Moss As Decorations

Nowadays, if we’re honest, Spanish moss really only has two popular uses. One of which, decoration, might be less practical, but it has its merits. 

Products like this Super Moss Spanish Moss, which is both dried and has enough practical uses of its own, can be found online and in local craft stores.

It can be simply added to floral arrangements for an extra bit of ‘oomph,’ or you can style an event or another piece of decor with this plant. Really, it’s whatever your heart desires.

Spanish moss is good for special events decor, like when you are sticking a name card into a vase and needing some extra ‘filler’ to hold the card up. Perhaps you’d use this to dress up some of your indoor succulents or to provide a backdrop for some other windowsill decor.

Let your crafty side fly free and know that whatever you opt for is going to be a good use for Spanish moss!

Spanish Moss Can Be Used As Mulch

Spanish moss has been known to be used in mulch, which is the other popular current-day use of the product.

Spanish moss helps hold moisture and retain soil, so what better addition to this year’s pile of mulch? 

Not only is it a pretty addition to all kinds of decor, or a relatively harmless hanging plant, it also can help support new plants as they begin to grow and flourish.

Mulch is used similar to fertilizer as nutrients for an oak tree. If you’d like, you can read more about the best fertilizers for oak trees here.

That’s Moss-tly It For Now!

Okay, ignore the bad pun but we’re trying over here!

Now that we have learned a little more about Spanish moss, its pros and cons, and even how to remove it if you still prefer that path of action, it’s clear that this air plant is versatile, pliant, and pretty darn cool.

Remember that Spanish moss is not a parasite. It just likes to hang out and take some water and nutrients from the air.

We hope that this article helped you understand the ways in which Spanish moss operates. 

Until next time… thanks for reading!

References

Garth, R. E. (1964). The ecology of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides): its growth and distribution. Ecology45(3), 470-481.

Van Stan, J. T., Stubbins, A., Bittar, T., Reichard, J. S., Wright, K. A., & Jenkins, R. B. (2015). Tillandsia usneoides (L.) L.(Spanish moss) water storage and leachate characteristics from two maritime oak forest settings. Ecohydrology8(6), 988-1004.

Schlesinger, W. H., & Marks, P. L. (1977). Mineral cycling and the niche of Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides L. American Journal of Botany64(10), 1254-1262.

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