SPANISH MOSS IN FLORIDA
Revised by Jack Shoemaker (Photography by Trent Rogers)
State of Florida Department of Agriculture
Nathan Mayo, Commissioner
There are many items in the State of Florida that have brought forth many comments from our visitors, but few have brought out the widely diversified remarks made by the tourists from other States who see the vast forests of cypress, pine and live oak trees festooned and draped so extensively with the long flowing strands of Spanish moss.
The weird and wreath-like appearance of the Spanish moss appeals to all who see this dense mass swinging in the breeze. To the native, the moss-draped areas mean very little and are a part of the scenery to which he is accustomed.
Contrary to all ideas of the layman, Spanish moss does not injure the tree as such but it can and does have its effects on the growth of the tree. It is an air plant and derives its sustenance from the air, using the trees mainly as an anchor. As the breezes-blow the moss back and forth, strands are broken and find new resting places, thus reproducing the moss very prolificacy.
Spanish moss occurs throughout the State of Florida, primarily in the swamplands, in the lower hardwood bottom regions and in the piney woods, particularly those adjacent to the Gulf coast. The industry of using the moss is nearly as old as the history of the State, for in the early days the settlers or pioneers gathered the moss, cured and ginned it by hand and used the fibers for making braids, and for use in bridles, saddle blankets, and horse collars. It has just been within the past 40 years, however, that the reputation of Spanish moss as a quality filler for mattresses, cushions and pillows became known to the public. And while it is true that the industry has declined somewhat in recent years because of the competition with other padding and filling materials, there are still a large number of families in the state that derive all or part of their income from "the clothing of the trees."
SPANISH MOSS IN FLORIDA
By Jack Shoemaker
The plant known variously as Spanish, or southern or Florida moss, and from its appearance sometimes called "old man's beard," resembles a lichen and hangs in long festoons from the branches of trees. It is not a true moss at all but a fiber plant belonging to the pineapple family (Bromeliaceae). The botanical name for it is Dendropogon usneoides. For over 150 years it bore the scientific name of Tillandsia usneoides, but modern students hold that it is so distinct from other Tillandsias in technical characters as to belong in a separate genus.
The long strands, attaining a maximum length of three or four yards, consist of a core of black vegetable hair covered by a grey bark. Spanish moss is a flowering plant, the strands growing from the flower or seed. The small flowers are yellowish-green and slightly fragrant at night. The seeds are equipped with feathery parachutes which float them through the air and hold them to the bark of trees. Several strands may grow simultaneously from one seed or parent sprout. Small, thread-like leaves from one to three inches long grow along these strands.
Detached from the parent seed, the strands continue to grow and blossom and a minute piece carried by the wind or a bird to a distant point may come in time to fill a tree. This accounts for the irregular distribution.
The plant blooms in the summer months and during this season much of it is young and tender and unfit for market. Ginners, therefore, do not as a rule buy or gather green moss during the summer because of the prevalence of young strands in the lot. It is not until fall and the young moss produced in the summer has matured and turned grey that the fiber is tough enough to stand the rotting process through which it must be put to remove the bark.
Spanish moss is the most common of all air plants in the sections where it grows from the Dismal swamp of Virginia to die southernmost tip of Florida and along the Gulf of Mexico coast from Florida to Texas. Other species extend southward in the Gulf region through Mexico into Central America. It grows best in very moist localities, but can also be found away from swamps or water.
A rootless plant, it fastens itself to the bark of trees and by means of specialized scale-like hairs takes its food from air and rain. Spanish moss is an epiphyte, requiring the support of other plants, but it is not a parasite, as often supposed, for it takes no nutriment from the sap of the tree upon which it grows. The seeds lodge in cracks in the bark of trees and germinate and as soon as the young shoots reach a few inches in length, they break away from their cradle and suspend themselves on any support to which they fall or are blown.
In Florida the moss is gathered from the trees by means of a long pole with a hook or double barb on one end. The best time to gather the moss is in the late fall or winter when it is toughest. It grows largely upon live oaks but is found on water oaks, hickories, cypress and gums and will grow upon any tree, even dead ones, or telegraph wires. It has been contended that it will grow better on dead trees than upon live ones. Moss-gatherers and woodsmen have observed, however, that after a tree is dead the moss on it also will die eventually. This presumably is for lack of the moisture exuded by the live tree, as the moss takes nothing from the sustenance of the tree, although it can kill trees by becoming so thick upon them as to smother them. Moss also tends to shade out the lower leaves and occasionally to cause the weak limbs to break from the weight of the moss, particularly when it is heavily laden with rain water.
The value and grade of Spanish or southern moss as an upholstery material depends largely upon thorough care in selecting the growing moss, upon its proper cure, and preparation for the market. While the supply is great, due to the rapidity with which it replenishes itself, the loss in curing and ginning is great and the finished product represents less than 15 per cent of the bulk weight of the raw material.
When the moss is gathered, it usually is left under the trees in small piles to be picked up by trucks or wagons. It often is found in large quantities upon the ground, especially after a windstorm, and then is comparatively easy to collect, but the fallen moss is not of the best quality if it remains on the ground too long.
In Louisiana, the largest moss-producing state, the methods of gathering and treatment are somewhat different from those employed in Florida. A large part of the Louisiana output is fallen moss, gathered from the bayous where it has dropped from
the tall cypress trees, and the common practice of curing is to let it remain under water until the bark rots off before drying and ginning it.
Because of the greater ease with which it is gathered and cured in Louisiana and its abundance there, the state has been able to produce most of the output. Another advantage the industry has in Louisiana is that it was started there shortly after the Civil War, whereas the marketing of moss has been an industry in Florida only about 50 years. Louisiana has an average annual production of a value estimated at more than $2,000,000. Florida ranks second in production, with South Carolina third.
Moss-bearing forests in Florida are very spotted and widely scattered. Cypress swamps and riversides are prolific in moss production, but much of it is out of reach on tall trees with no low limbs for climbing. Oak forests, even on highlands, arc often heavy moss producers. The scrub cypress timbered sections of the Everglades look "mossy," but it is exceedingly difficult to get any kind of conveyance through the woods to haul it out. Any one interested in locating a plant for handling moss would have
Moss that has been cured for three to six months, depending upon the quality wanted, is placed on fences around a moss ginning plant to dry out before the final processing.
A Florida moss-ginner looks over three grades of Spanish moss. On the table is the green moss taken from the trees, on his left is moss which has been cured but not ginned, and in Ill's right hand he holds the final product which he sells.
to make a survey of the state to find the most promising moss-bearing sections, and with the more favorable surroundings for the bringing of moss to the ginnery and of marketing the product.
Those who gather the moss may undertake to cure it themselves or sell it directly to a dealer or ginner for curing. The gatherers are paid about $14.00 a ton for the green moss. The curing process is of utmost importance, for it is upon this that the grade of the finished bale mav ultimately depend. The common method ol preparing is to wet it down thoroughly by throwing water upon it, and pack it in trenches or pits about four feet deep and four feet wide. This process is known to the trade as pitting. Several tons of green moss are placed in a pit. After a few days, heat is generated in the moss and this moist heat rots the bark and the leaves from the core. The chemical contents of the bark also serve to tan and toughen the hairy core and to color it black or a dark seal-brown.
The longer the moss is allowed to remain pitted, provided it is not more than about eight months and decomposition does not set in, the more thoroughly the bark is removed and the better the fiber. To make the best grade of hair moss, it should remain in the pit about six months. After that, the fiber will be wholly dark, but if prematurely removed, white specks of bark may be seen clinging to the strands.
In two or three months after the moss is first pitted, it is turned over, the center of the pile being pitched to the outside and the outside to the center. It is again soaked with water and left for another month or two before being removed from the pit. The bulk is then much smaller, as the rotting reduces the weight of the moss about 75 per cent. While in the pit, the moss must be inspected occasionally to see that it does not ferment and injure the fiber. If the interior of the pile becomes cold, it is pitched over to generate heat and aid decay of the bark.
When the outside grey covering slips readily from the dark fibrous inner portion, it is taken from the pit and hung upon lines to dry. The next step in the process is the ginning. A fairly good second grade can be made after three or four months of curing. A third grade is obtained in a shorter time.
Another method of curing is to pile the moss in mounds about 6 feet square and 4 feet high. It is piled when wet and a sort of fermentation and slow combustion takes place, causing
the outer layer to rot off. A pile is allowed to remain undisturbed for a month to a month and one-half and is then worked over into a new pile by placing the top layers on the ground as though the pile had been turned over. Ordinarily, three months is sufficient time for complete curing. The moss is then hung in racks, fences, or any available support where it is exposed to the elements; the rain helps to wash away the loose outer tissue, and the sun dries and hardens the fiber. When it is finally cured it is stored in a shed or in anv other dry place till it can be sold to a moss gin.
There are a number of other curing processes but those involving a hurry-up process very often have a tendency to weaken and injure the fibre.
Moss, after it has been gathered and cured, has lost about two-thirds of its original weight and bulk so that a ton of green moss yields onlv about 500 to 700 pounds of cured moss. This is worth from 4 to 5 cents per pound on an average, and is usually sold to some gin operator who buys the moss from a large section of country. The price paid depends upon the cleanness
Here's an interior view of a ginning plant which shows moss in the foreground being placed on a conveyor belt and then going through the gin. Also shown are Negroes fluffing the moss and separating the different qualities.
of the moss, its freedom from sticks, leaves, and other trash, and its color. Properly cured, the strands are quite black and vary in length up to several feel. When not properly cured, the fiber has a brownish-black color and lias particles of the outer layer still adhering to it. The moss from cvpress seems to yield the longest and blackest threads and is called "Black John:"' it also commands the best price from the gin operator.
The next step in the process is the ginning. At the moss gin the cured moss goes through a sorting and cleaning process, sticks and trash are picked out by hand, the fibers are pulled apart and then fed into a machine or gin that further straightens out the fibers and removes the foreign particles. During the cleaning process there is a loss of about 15 or 20 per cent due to the removal of trash and short broken fibers that are eliminated by the gin.
The gin consists in principle of a toothed cylinder working against toothed concaves. The gins are usually constructed to order, although there are some models manufactured. A good type is a heavy steel affair, the teeth of which are carried on a drum revolving some 1200 times a minute. The gin combs and frees the moss of sticks, bark and other debris. It is shaken up with pitchforks or raked back and forth over a lattice work floor to free it from the bark and trash and then run through the gin again. For a higher grade, it mav then be run through a second gin on which the teeth are finer and in which it is combed thoroughly before bailing. The net result of the process is a coarse, black hair like material. Some of the better qualities of tin's fiber are colored by being dipped in large tanks containing anilin dyes.
The ultimate yield of finished product is approximately 15 to 20 per cent of the weight of the green moss as it was when taken from the trees. Tfie bailing is quite simple. The finished hair is placed in presses and compressed into bales of from 60 to 135 pounds which are covered with burlap and wired to prevent loss of hair and keep it clean in transportation. Depending upon the quality of the moss, it sells for 15 to 35 cents a pound.
Use of Moss
The use of moss is varied. It is not used as extensively in automobile cushions now as it formerly was for the reason that hair mats cut by machinery are found more expedient in the mass
production methods employed in the manufacture of automobiles. Moss requires the deft touch of an upholsterer when used in cushions and upholstery. It is still used in automobile cushions to some extent, however, and is also employed for stuffing mattresses, upholstering furniture anil for cushions in airplanes and railway cars, though its most important industrial use is in furniture manufacturing.
It is well adapted for the purposes mentioned because if well prepared, it retains its resiliency for many years. It has excellent wearing qualities, being almost indestructible. Some of it left on the ground in the weather for as long as five years has been found quite well preserved at the end of (hat time, and it is only after such a period of exposure that it begins to become brittle or break up and decay. When used in mattresses and in cushioning furniture, it is found much cleaner and more sanitary than the horse hair it resembles. When finally it does lose its resiliency in cushioning, it may be worked over and partially renewed and will continue to give service. Another factor influencing its use is that it does not harbor vermin.
Usually the higher the grade the darker the color. Black or very dark brown is preferred. Specially selected hairs produced in Florida contain no particles of bark, leaves, or loreign matter, whatever, and are much darker, richer in color and glossier than poorer qualities. The proportion of first class grades runs about 15 per cent of the total fiber production.
Grades of Southern moss are not standardized but are fairly uniform and simple. According to their curing, the mosses may be known as light brown, dark brown, or mixed, and black and these may be single or double ginned.
To the tourist, Spanish moss has an esthetic value and is appreciated for the weird and mysterious aspect it gives to our swamps and hardwood regions, lint to those who work with it, the moss is a veritable silver mine ol the air. It is a savings bank and always at hand to gather.
Two Companies in Florida
Ginning of Spanish moss was formerly on a larger scale, but competitive conditions (such as other padding and filling products) have resulted in a decrease in this business. At one time there were more than 10 such plants in Florida and more than 50 in Louisiana. Today there are only two in Florida; the Yego-IIair Manufacturing Company in Gainesville and the
Florida Moss Ginning Company of Ocala. Botli of these companies have yards at different locations in the State where they purchase green or cured moss. It is estimated that approximately 1.200 to 1.500 persons are engagedon a part-time or full-time basisin gathering and selling moss to these companies.
The moss is gathered during both the warm season and the winter months, with both white farmers and colored tenants spending their idle periods gathering the moss. The height of the moss-picking season, however, seems to be when farm work is slack, usually during the fall and winter months, from November to April.
The Spanish moss industry is an extra revenue crop, one that Nature furnishes in addition to her other resources. Investigation has shown that the average moss picker can gather up to 500 pounds of green moss a day and four members of a family can easily pick up a ton of moss a day. This means extra money in the pockets of persons who otherwise would be idle.
When moss is sold to a ginner, different tilings like logs, dead animals and rocks are sometimes found inside the bundles. Pictured are two squirrels lound in a ball of green moss, which in this case served as a home for wildlife.
Another interesting fact is that Spanish moss is so prolific that there is very little danger of destroying the base of supply. One moss ginner went so far as to say "that as long as we have trees, we'll have moss!"
Oespite its range of occurrence, southern moss enters the commercial channels almost entirely from the States of Florida and Louisiana. There are no official figures on the quantity of moss produced, and a complete record of such would be difficult to secure because of all the small and scattered plants within the southern States. In 1925, moss production was valued at $1,068,564 in the U. S. Census of Manufacturers for some 18,800,000 pounds of moss. At that time Louisiana turned out around 10,000,000 pounds of this production for a value of $500,000. Also at the same time one of the Florida ginners stated, "Two ginners in Florida and about five in Louisiana accounted for 75 per cent of the total moss output, with the rest being distributed among about 50 smaller ginners."
The 1954 Census of Manufacturers, the Padding and Upholstery Filling industry shipped products valued at
Here arc dozens of bales of ginned moss, ready for shipment to furniture companies for use in stuffing mattresses, upholstering furniture and automobile cushions and many other industrial uses.
8149,000.000. The south's part of this industry is somewhere in the neighborhood of $19,267,000, with an estimated $3,000,000 of that obtained through the Spanish moss industry. In the State of Florida there are only two major moss manufacturers with total sales each year grossing approximately $550,000.
In research work with Spanish moss, there lias been some mention of using this fiber for cattle feed in addition to certain other materials. It has been found if cattle eat too much of it, it can be dangerous for the fiber is most indigestible. Some cattlemen say, however, that the moss has more food value than oat straw and its use has the possibility of improving meat quality.
The gin waste, composed of the outer bark, the thin inner bark and trash that is found in the cured moss, is sometimes used as a mulching material, and has a small value as organic matter. The poorest quality of moss goes into such things as stuffing for horse collar pads. The moss is used, also, to shade plants and to cover them for protection from frost.
The University of Florida Engineering and Industrial Experiment Station has suggested that the wax which can be recovered from Spanish moss may have commercial possibilities. It is similar to carnauba wax and makes an excellent polish for automobiles. Other by-products which might some day become useful in medicine include estrogens, carotene, vitamins A and C, antibiotics, antibacterial agents, and materials active against tuberculosis.
Erdman West, botanist with the University of Florida Agricultural Experiment Station, says that if you don't want moss growing in vour trees, particularly around your lawn, you can kill it by spraying with 6-2-100 bordeaux mixture (6 pounds copper sulphate or bluestone, 2 pounds lime and 100 gallons of water) or 2-100 lead arsenate (2 pounds lead arsenate in 100 gallons of water). The tough inner fibers will remain hanging on the trees for many months. It may be necessary to spray every second year to kill any new moss that has blown in and made a home for itself.
Country trails arc restful under a "canopy of Spanish moss.