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The maverick pineapple.

When you see Spanish moss or pictures of it swaying in the breeze like supple stalactites, are you reminded of pineapples? The resemblance is not particularly striking, but taxonomists assure us that this plant is a member in good standing of the extensive pineapple family.

Even as real pineapples do not grow on trees, real Spanish moss never grows on the ground. A true air plant, or epiphyte, it derives its sustenance from the wind and rain. Air plants are not parasites; they merely perch on the limbs of the host tree. Dense concentrations of Spanish moss on live oaks and cypress are probably no more than a minor inconvenience to the trees they decorate.

Yes, decorate is the right word. The beauty of any magnificent oak or cypress is marvelously enhanced when the limbs are draped with wisps of this maverick pineapple. The effect is at once mysterious and exotic, especially to eyes accustomed to northern forests, where Spanish moss is unknown. The impact is especially powerful during the magic moments of dawn, when moss-draped cypress is softly silhouetted in the rising mist. This is nature's poetry at its best.

Usually appearing a light, dirty gray in color, Spanish moss becomes distinctly green when wet. The green pigment is chlorophyll, the marvelous stuff than enables plants to synthesize carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water.

With Spanish moss, the gray that ordinarily masks the green is supplied by hair-like appendages that give the plant a fuzzy appearance. This fuzz efficiently extracts nutrients from airborne dust, fog, rain, and possibly bird droppings.

A card-carrying member of the genus Tillandsia, this strange and wonderful plant is found from Georgia to Texas and south to Argentina. Generally considered tropical and subtropical, it nevertheless tolerates the periodic hard freezes of southern Georgia and northern Florida fairly well.

Of course, as an air plant Spanish moss has no roots. It does have flowers, (though the casual observer is unlikely to notice them) and fruits.

When ripe, the fruits open and allow the wind to carry the fine seeds away. Through this haphazard process, some of the seeds are lucky enough to find a comfortable niche in the bark of a tree limb. Germination brings forth a hairlike tentacle. Eventually, a new Spanish moss plant swings gracefully from the branch.

Not all species of trees are friendly to Spanish moss. You will never find this plant on pines, but it loves live oaks and baldcypress, which have bark with plenty of nooks and crannies to hold and germinate the seed. Florida maple, cedar, and other trees may be draped modestly with moss, but the resins in pines flatly reject virtually all air plants.

In bygone years, Spanish moss was stripped of its fuzz and used to stuff mattresses and pillows. More comfortable than a bed of nails, perhaps, but not much.

Although its distant relative, the pineapple, is delicious to eat, the maverick Spanish moss is inedible, at least by human standards. It might be interesting to check with your neighborhood goats for a second opinion.

Let's concede that Spanish moss makes poor mattresses and has no worth as food for man or beast. Its value lies in its unique, exotic beauty. In today's pragmatic world, this may be the most meaningful value of all.

Phil Francis writes about Spanish moss from his home in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Spanish Moss Dieback.?

Ten years ago, while researching a book, I went canoeing in Louisiana's remote Atchafalaya swamp. I expected to see trailing gray strands festooning the "tenebrous boughs of the cypress," as Longfellow put it when he penned his epic poem about an Acadian woman searching for her betrothed along the bayous of the Atchafalaya. Much to my disappointment, I saw nary a silken strand.

I investigated and learned that scientist believe that Spanish moss has suffered a dieback. They finger air pollution as a possible culprit and a fungus as another.

Today, still curious, I called Dr. Gordon Holcomb, a professor of plant pathology at Louisiana State University. He told me that a fungus causing a blight and slow decline was originally identified in Florida." We found a similar disease here," he noted, "but there are too many things going on in Louisiana to attribute the decline to any one thing."

He attributes the Louisiana dieback to blight, exhaust fumes, and air pollution from the state's petrochemical industry. "But," he reassured me, "we're in no danger of losing Spanish moss in the foreseeable future."
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Title Annotation:includes related article; Spanish moss
Author:Davis, Norah Deakin
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Words:748
Previous Article:Rooted in time.
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