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How to care for Spanish moss: watering, repotting and where to position it

This ‘tree hair’ houseplant is more closely related to a pineapple than a moss.

Spanish moss
By
13 May 2021
S

panish moss is shrouded in mystery. "It has no roots, is it alive?" "Where does it get its food from?" and "Does it even grow?" are all questions we are frequently asked at Walworth Garden.

If you’re not familiar with the plant, it has a mass of silver-green leaves, and grows in long delicate chains, often bunched together.

The word Tillandsia is derived from one Elias Tillandz, a 17th-century Swedish botanist, and the harder to pronounce usneoides (us-nee-oi-deez) links the appearance of Spanish moss to some of our native lichen, called Usnea.

You might then think that this plant is a moss or a lichen, but in fact it is more closely related to the pineapple.

How to care for Spanish moss

Native to much of South America and southern United States, one of the indigenous names used for the plant was itla-okla, which translates to "tree hair".

Spanish moss is an air plant, or epiphyte, hanging from the branches of living and dead trees, giving trees this hairy appearance.

Tillandsia thrives in humid conditions, so it’s a perfect plant to hang in a bathroom or kitchen. Keeping it alive is easier than you might think, and as houseplants go, it is very low maintenance, but quite different in its requirement to other indoor plants.

The first key to success is ensuring the plant you have or are buying is alive. Healthy plants should be sliver-green, not silver-grey or brown.

Whilst Spanish moss is pretty resilient, and can go up to two months without water, if the needle-like leaves are grey/brown, it might already be too late.

When it comes to watering, there are a couple of approaches for success. Tillandsia is an indoor plant that benefits from a regular misting, and this can also be a great way to get some nutrients to the plant using a very diluted liquid fertiliser. We use a very dilute worm-wee feed from our wormery once or twice a year.  When misting, you want to give the plant just enough water, that water droplets start to form at the end of the leaves.

The other technique to water a tillandsia is to dunk the whole bunch in a bowl of room temperature water, when the plant starts to look like it is dry. This approach is a little more risky, as Spanish moss doesn’t like to be too wet, especially when the air temperature is cool, for a prolonged period of time. A quick dunk, and somewhere warm with good airflow to drip dry is all this plant needs.

Position your Tillandsia close to a window with direct to bright-indirect light. They naturally grow in the forest understory so don’t need direct light, but our homes often offer much less light than they require to thrive.

How to propagate Spanish moss

Propagating Spanish moss couldn’t be easier; it is just a case of splitting or cutting a piece from the existing bunch, re-hanging it and starting again. In the right conditions, your air plant will grow at least 10 to 20cm a year.

George Hudson is Head of Plants and Education at Walworth Garden, a South London charity delivering workshops, courses, therapeutic horticulture and plants for sale in a garden open to all. Follow on Instagram @walworthgarden