Sandy’s Garden ... Spanish Moss

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Quite a number of years have passed since our last visit to Aberdeen.

So when friends with whom we were spending a recent weekend in Stonehaven suggested that we spent a morning in the winter gardens in the city’s Duthie Park we were more than willing to agree. What a transformation there has been since we were last there! Huge sums of money have been spent … and, indeed, are still being spent … on a major renovation project covering the entire park; and the David Welch Winter Gardens have been major beneficiaries of this expenditure.

But it is not my intention to enthuse about these two acres … yes, two acres … of largely glasshouse-enclosed planting, but to concentrate on a single plant which is currently featured there. Spanish moss, my chosen plant, comes originally from the south-eastern part of the United States, and from Central and South America. It is a flowering plant which, in the wild, grows principally on Southern Live Oak trees and Bald Cypress trees - and it is entirely correct to say that Spanish moss grows on these trees, for Spanish moss is an epiphyte, the technical term for any plant which attaches itself to a larger host, absorbing nutrients and water from the air and from the rain and, while not directly making demands of its host, nevertheless reduces the amount of sunlight reaching its host’s leaves, thereby somewhat lowering that tree’s rate of growth.

Although Southern Live Oak and Bald Cypress trees are rather rare in Scotland, to put it very mildly, Spanish moss is a very accommodating plant which will readily attach itself to any convenient surface; so the plant is quite common here, growing indoors and better known under another of its common names – the air plant. Its pukka botanical name is Tillandsia usneoides; and, since Tillandsia ends in –ia, this tells us that the plant is named after a person, in this instance, Elis Til-Landz, a Swedish botanist who was born in 1640 and died relatively young in 1693. After being appointed professor of medicine at the Academy of Turku, he seems to have changed his name to Elias Tillander, and was the author of Catalogus Plantarum, which was published in 1673 and was the first specifically Swedish botanical book. It is this work for which he is commemorated in the name Tillandsia.

The second part of the air plant’s botanical name … usneoides … is because of its resemblance to the plant of that name. It has two or three wiry tendrils which cling to its support and attach the plant to its host. There is no stem, the grey-green, triangular leaves springing from a small rosette that forms the base of the plant. The long, very fine hairs which cover the surface of these leaves are the means by which the air plant draws nutrients and moisture from the air. It does bear flowers, which fulfil the usual requirement of flowers by attracting pollinating insects to ensure that the plant bears seed: but these flowers are tiny and inconspicuous and Tillandsia usneoides is grown here as an indoor foliage plant.

Conditions in a Scottish house are rather different from the plant’s native habitat; and the plant needs a little care, although it is very undemanding and will thrive perfectly well with only a few minutes of attention each week. Keep an air plant in a reasonably warm area where there is air circulation, but not directly in a warm draught; and keep it reasonably moist. The easiest way to do this is to submerge the entire plant in water once or twice a week; and feed it perhaps once a month by adding a small amount of plant food to the water in which the plant is submerged – be guided by the instructions which come with it from the garden centre. Your Spanish moss will reward you generously for this minimum of care.