Spanish moss (scientific name Tillandsia usneoides) is a silvery-grey plant that is frequently found growing in big, beard-like masses. The stems of this plant are similar to thread and measures about 6 meters to 7.5 meters (roughly 20 feet to 25 feet) in length. Even the leaves of this plant are threadlike and measure anything between 2.5 cm and 7.5 cm (1 inch and 3 inches) in length. The Spanish moss bears yellow flowers, which are seen seldom. These flowers are without any stalk and each flower is comprised of three yellow petals and three sepals. Generally, each flower grows separately. The entire plant is covered by hair-like scales, which take up water from the air.
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Usually, Spanish moss is found growing on large trees, generally the bald cypress (scientific name Taxodium distichum) and the southern live oak (scientific name Quercus virginiana). This plant is commonly found in the savannas and lowlands in the south-eastern United States, especially in Texas and Florida extending northwards via southern Arkansas and Virginia. Moreover, Spanish moss is native to many places in Bermuda, Mexico, Central America, the Bahamas, South America and even the West Indies. Over the years, this plant has also been naturalized in Australia's Queensland as well as in French Polynesia.
The specific name of Spanish moss is usneoides, which denotes "resembling usnea". In fact, this herb has an apparent resemblance to its namesake Usnea, which is also called the beard lichen. However, the fact remains that Spanish moss is not a moss. It is also not lichen. On the other hand, Spanish moss is an angiosperm (flowering plant) belonging to the Bromeliaceae or the bromeliads family that growing dangling from the branches of large trees and shrubs in places receiving full sunlight or where there is partial shade. Earlier, the Spanish moss was classified in the genera Anoplophytum, Renealmia and Caraguata.
Spanish moss is found growing over a vast expanse in the United States. The usual range of this herb is Northampton County, Virginia. However, there are unsupported reports from the colonial era that it was also found growing in the southern regions of Maryland, but currently this herb is not in existence there. The main range of this herb includes the southern region of the United States, which includes Puerto Rico, via Argentina. It grows best where the climatic conditions are sufficiently warm and has a relatively high mean humidity. Over the years, Spanish moss has been introduced in various places across the world where the climatic conditions are similar and favourable for its growth and sustenance. Currently, it is found growing in Australia and Hawaii.
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Spanish moss or tillandsia belongs to the Bromeliaceae botanical family, which also includes pineapple. This herb is found growing in large masses on trees and shrubs in swamps, hammocks, and low woods. This herb has a mysterious beauty, which has enhanced the landscapes in the southern United States since the time of Longfellow's Evangeline. It is worth noting that tillandsia is epiphytic in nature. In other words, as this herb does not have any root, it can take up nutrients as well as moisture from the air, rain and sunlight.
Spanish moss has a number of uses, mainly medicinal. In earlier days, green Spanish moss was brewed and consumed in the form of an herbal tea by expectant mothers, apparently to promote the production and secretion of breast milk in addition to make childbirth easier. In folk medicine, a tea prepared from this herb was also consumed to treat rheumatism.
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According to claims, this herb was used in Mexico for treating epilepsy among infants. During the beginning of the 1950s, this plant was employed as a substitute for estrogen. In fact, scientists have discovered that Spanish moss has shown that it possesses anti-bacterial properties.
Several studies undertaken on animals in laboratories have been found that oral extracts from Spanish moss are helpful in lowering the levels of blood cholesterol. This effect of the plant has been mainly attributed to a compound known as HMG or 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaric acid. Currently, HMG is found as an ingredient in a number of herbal supplements meant for diabetic patients.
Here is an interesting fact related to Spanish moss. It is said that a resident of Florida called Cap Monroe, who died at a very ripe age of 135, consumed tillandsia tea daily. Monroe pulled the Spanish moss directly from the trees it grew on. This herbal tea showed enhanced effectiveness and was acclaimed for various reasons, including enhancement in glandular functioning, fatigue, confusion, libido, senility, depression, hyperirritability and several other things.
In southern Louisiana, Cajun healers have been using tillandsia tea for diabetes patients since long. Back in 1996, scientists identified a bioactive substance, which had the potential to become an anti-diabetic remedy. Use of this bioactive compound significantly lowered the level of blood sugar in rodents.
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Previous studies suggested that this compound also possessed the aptitude to lower blood cholesterol levels in humans. Researchers speculate that this bioactive compound may be able to prevent conditions like acidosis (burning of excessive fats) and ketosis (burning of too much proteins) - two common conditions in people suffering from diabetes.
Aside from its various therapeutic applications, Spanish moss also has a number of other uses. For instance, it is used in the form of mulch, building insulation, mattress stuffing, packing material and even fiber. During the beginning of the 1900s, Spanish moss was commercially used for padding seats of cars. Available documents show that more than 10,000 tons of Spanish moss was processed commercially for various applications in 1939. Even today, people collect Spanish moss, albeit in smaller quantities, for using it in arts and crafts. In addition, it finds its use as a component in traditional wall covering material bousillage and preparing beddings for different flower gardens. In a number of regions in Latin America, people still use Spanish moss in various nativity scenes.
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People residing in the desert areas of the south-western United States use dried out Spanish moss plants to make evaporative coolers, which commonly called swamp coolers. Such coolers are used to keep homes and offices cool. Compared to using air conditioners, these swamp coolers are very inexpensive. The process of using these coolers is also very simple. A pump is used to sprinkle water on a pad made from dried Spanish moss plant. Simultaneously, a fan draws the cool air through the pad and passes it into the buildings. When the water on the Spanish moss pads evaporates, it works to lower the temperature, thereby cooling the buildings where they are installed.
The Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) can be propagated both from its seeds as well as division. It is quite easy to grow this herb because it does not require any soil. The key elements for the optimal growth of Spanish moss include a perfect combination of heat and humidity. This plant prefers a temperature higher than 60°F and misting with warm water every day.
Spanish moss has a preference for humid conditions. However, this plant possesses the aptitude to trap water and this quality helps it to survive even when the conditions are dry. In addition, when the conditions are too arid, Spanish moss can lie dormant for a considerable period and rejuvenate when there is ample moisture for its growth.
Interestingly enough, this plant does not possess any root. It binds to substrates by means of draping its stems around any surface. In addition, this herb also does not require any roots for absorbing water and various nutrients, because all the parts of this plant possess these attributes.
Normally, you will find Spanish moss growing on cypress and oak trees. However, it can also grow on several other plants with equal ease.
In 1953, scientists identified an "estrogenic" substance called phytoestrogen in tillandsia. According to the medical journal Science, tillandsia encloses a naturally occurring estrogen precursor, which was documented during experiments undertaken on mice and cattle. In fact, the benefits of endocrine gland are valuable for males as well as females. A study conducted in 1993 stated that the plant possessed properties that performed as hormone precursors as well as promoted healing. During clinical experiments it was observed that providing the subjects with supplements derived from tillandsia continuously supported the enlargement of underdeveloped breasts in adolescent women. In addition, the study also reported that supplementation helped in re-establishing both sexual development and maintaining hormonal (gonadal) balance.
Tillandsia is a wonderful source of chlorophyll. Moreover, it contains abundant vitamin E complex factors, which are known to be very useful in treating various health conditions. Aside from these, tillandsia contains significant amounts of dietary fibers, B vitamins, carotenes and essential minerals like calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, phosphorus, magnesium and sodium. Spanish moss is especially beneficial in treating conditions like chronic and debilitating health conditions as well as for curing glandular insufficiencies.
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