When Money Grew in Trees

Florida wouldn’t be Florida without its beautiful oak and cypress trees. Moreover, those picturesque trees would look awfully naked without their hanging curtains of Spanish moss blowing gently in the breeze. It’s an image that has been evoked a thousand times or more in art, song, novels and poetry. The moss even has its own legend, which countless tourists have sent home on postcards for friends and loved ones to read:

Postcard with the legend of the Spanish moss (ca. 1950).

Postcard with the legend of the Spanish moss (ca. 1950).

But let’s get a few things straight about Spanish moss, as it is a most peculiar species. For starters, it isn’t Spanish. It’s native to North America as far north as Virginia, so the Spanish can hardly lay claim to it. To be fair, they didn’t actually mean to give their name to the moss; that was the work of their colonial rivals, the French, during the 16th and 17th centuries. French explorers jokingly called the moss “Spanish beard,” while their Spanish counterparts responded in kind by calling it “French hair.” In those days, you clearly had to get your entertainment where you could find it.

A cypress tree draped in Spanish moss at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park (2007).

A cypress tree draped in Spanish moss at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park (2007).

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is also not actually a moss. In fact, as a bromeliad it has a closer relationship to the pineapple than it does to other species we would call “moss.” It’s an epiphyte, meaning it grows on other plants but is not parasitic. Contrary to popular belief, Spanish moss will not kill a tree if left unchecked, although it may produce enough shade to stunt its growth.

Picturesque as it may be, Spanish moss has long been known for more than just its good looks. Once its outer bark has been removed and the strong fibers inside have been allowed to dry, the resulting material is surprisingly strong, yet also soft enough to use for cushioning. Native Americans reportedly weaved dried moss into clothing, and early white settlers braided it into ropes and netting. As early as 1773, the roving naturalist William Bartram remarked during his tour of the Southeast that Spanish moss was “particularly adapted to the purpose of stuffing mattresses, chairs, saddles, collars, etc.; and for these purposes, nothing yet known equals it.” It also served as a popular curiosity and souvenir for Northern visitors. Tourists would take boxes of Spanish moss back home and hang it in their own trees, giving them a bit of Florida to enjoy until winter arrived and killed it off.

“The jolly old crowd in Auburndale,” some with Spanish moss adorning their heads (ca. 1920s).

It didn’t take the enterprising people of Florida long to figure out that this natural bounty could be harvested and sold for a profit. As early as 1834, a New Englander visiting Jacksonville commented on the growing moss industry in that area. The poet Sidney Lanier, who visited Florida in the 1870s, noted a similar factory just up the St. Johns River in Tocoi. The Census Bureau listed a moss processing plant at Pensacola in a supplement to the 1880 federal census, and there was a large moss factory at Gainesville as of 1882 as well. These businesses made their money by collecting moss from local forests, curing and ginning it, and then selling it to manufacturers up north, who used the material for cushions and mattresses and other products.

Articles of incorporation for the Florida Moss-Hair Company, based in Gainesville. From Box 192, Folder 612, Domestic Articles of Incorporation (Series S 186), State Archives of Florida.

Articles of incorporation for the Florida Moss-Hair Company, based in Gainesville. From Box 192, Folder 612, Domestic Articles of Incorporation (Series S 186), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the entire document.

The moss business had its advantages and disadvantages. The supply was plentiful, and sometimes pecan and citrus grove operators actually paid moss collectors to rid them of the stuff, since it could decrease the trees’ production. Farm laborers often gathered moss during their off-season as a way to make extra money, gathering the material in their local woods and carting it to the nearest processing plant. The moss gatherer’s tool of choice was usually a long wooden pole with a hook or barb on one end, which could be twisted in the moss and pulled to bring it down in large clumps. From this point, however, the work was tough. The gray outer bark of the moss had to be removed to get to the strong fibers within, usually through a curing process. Moss factories sometimes did their own curing; other times they purchased pre-cured moss from their suppliers. Either way, workers would stack the moss in large piles or drop it into large trenches, and then soak the whole lot with water. This would cause the moss to rot and shed its bark. The longer the moss cured, the tougher and cleaner the inner fiber would become. Six months was required to produce the highest grade moss, which would sell at the highest price.

Spanish moss arriving at the Leesburg Moss Yard in a Ford sedan. Moss gathering was one way to earn a little extra cash back in the days when the moss industry was in full swing (photo 1946).

Spanish moss arriving at the Leesburg Moss Yard in a Ford sedan. Moss gathering was one way to earn a little extra cash back in the days when the moss industry was in full swing (photo 1946).

Moss drying on racks after curing (1946).

Moss drying on racks after curing (1946).

Once the gray outer bark of the Spanish moss slipped off easily, workers removed it from its piles or trenches and hung it out on lines to dry in the sun. Rain, wind and friction combined forces to separate the bark from the dark fibers inside. At this stage, the cured moss would either be taken to a gin or sold to another company that would process the material. Cured moss was worth about 4 to 5 cents per pound as of the late 1950s, depending on how well it had been cleaned. The unit value of the finished product is tough to determine, since government figures often combine moss with other upholstery stuffing materials. State agriculture officials in the 1950s, however, estimated the overall value of the Florida moss crop to be about $500,000 per year.

Bales of ginned moss being loaded onto a truck (1928).

Bales of ginned moss being loaded onto a truck (1928).

These days, inner-spring mattresses have replaced moss-stuffed ones, and synthetic materials cushion our furniture and car seats. The moss factories that once hummed with activity from Pensacola to Gainesville to Leesburg and Apopka are no more. That’s not such a bad thing, of course. The silver lining–or gray, if you please–is that now we have more beautiful Spanish moss to enjoy in the trees where nature originally put it!

The Vine That Ate the South

If you’ve spent much time driving around North and Central Florida, chances are good that you’ve seen vines take over a few trees and power poles. It happens. Plenty of vines like Virginia creeper and wild grapevine love Florida’s climate and are all too happy to climb up a tree or pole to get a little closer to the sun. One vine in particular, however, has developed a reputation for being almost evil in its quest to grow and thrive, choking out anything that stands in its way. Kudzu (Pueraria thunbergiana) has in recent decades been drubbed as “the green menace” and “the vine that ate the South,” with tendrils that allegedly grow so fast they can outwalk a human. While we doubt kudzu really has nefarious intentions, it certainly is an invasive plant, and it has a history almost as complex as its bewildering carpet of vines and leaves.

Kudzu has overtaken this field near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

Kudzu has overtaken this field near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

Kudzu is native to Asia, where both Japanese and Chinese farmers have used it for centuries as food for livestock and ground cover to prevent erosion. It most likely first came to the United States in 1876, when representatives of the Japanese empire brought along a few cuttings to show off in their exhibit at the Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia. The vines were hardy and the leaves were attractive, so visitors were delighted to take home a few plants for ornamental use. Southerners appreciated kudzu’s potential as an erosion control agent, and soon it was sprouting in valleys and gullies all over the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

A kudzu leaf, photographed off South Barber Road near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

A kudzu leaf, photographed off South Barber Road near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

While kudzu may have possibly entered Florida before 1900, it really burst onto the scene just after the turn of the 20th century, thanks to the diligent boosterism of a Chipley photographer and planter named Charles Earl Pleas. An Indiana native, Pleas and his wife, Lillie, had grown kudzu near their home to serve as a shade vine. When the plant began to creep out onto the lawn–as kudzu tends to do–Pleas dug it up and threw it onto a trash heap near the barn. Determined to survive, the vines took root and began to cover the trash pile and the nearby building.

Then, something unexpected happened. Pleas noticed that all kinds of farm animals, from hogs to horses, seem to enjoy eating the vine. He wrote the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find out if kudzu was known to be poisonous, and the agency responded that it was not, although they also doubted livestock would eat the plant. Seeing that kudzu’s potential as forage had not yet been realized, Pleas and his wife launched a veritable kudzu crusade, promoting the vine as a miracle solution to the South’s long-standing need for a cheap, hardy yearlong food crop for livestock.

Pleas wrote glowingly about kudzu for newspapers and pamphlets, praising its high nutritional value and the ease with which it could be cultivated. It could grow up to a foot a day in early summer, for a total of up to 60 feet of new growth in a single growing season. Soon others in Florida, including State Chemist Rufus E. Rose, were promoting kudzu as both a superior feed crop and an instant solution to erosion. And if the vine overgrew its welcome? “It is an easy matter to get rid of Kudzu if desired,” wrote Edward B. Eppes of Tallahassee in 1913. New plants only sprouted from the crowns, he pointed out, so mowing down the crowns with a plow during the heat of summer would be enough to kill the plant dead. “For this reason,” he wrote, “there is no danger of Kudzu ever becoming a pest.”

Cover of a pamphlet titled "Soil Improving Crops," distributed by the Florida Department of Agriculture in 1948. The image features a field and tree overtaken by kudzu which, in the context of soil conservation, actually had some positive aspects. The State Library's State Document Collection contains many books and pamphlets on soil conservation efforts throughout the 20th century.

Cover of a pamphlet titled “Soil Improving Crops,” distributed by the Florida Department of Agriculture in 1948. The image features a field and tree overtaken by kudzu which, in the context of soil conservation, actually had some positive aspects. The State Library’s State Documents Collection contains many books and pamphlets on soil conservation efforts throughout the 20th century.

For a while, Eppes’ evaluation was spot-on. Floridians and their neighbors throughout the South used kudzu as feed and as ground cover to hold the soil in place on hillsides and in gullies. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service began officially recommending it to farmers in 1935, and the Civilian Conservation Corps planted innumerable cuttings along public roadways and railroad embankments. As late as 1944, the federal government paid farmers to cultivate kudzu, hoping it would both preserve the soil and make money for struggling American farmers still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression.

Kudzu vines growing on an embankment along a railroad near Tallahassee (1961).

Kudzu vines growing on an embankment along a railroad near Tallahassee (1961).

By the 1960s, however, the vine’s reputation had taken a dive. The Pensacola News Journal noted that it had a new nickname– the “cuss you” vine–because it had turned out to have some unfortunate qualities. Yes, kudzu was a good cover crop, but turn your back for just a moment and it might overtake another planted field, and even the barn beyond it! If conditions were right, it could even choke out young pine trees, destroying valuable sources of lumber and pulpwood. The vine snaked its way into everything, taking over unoccupied dwellings, gardens and even utility poles, occasionally shorting out electrical lines. In 1970, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which had earlier been one of kudzu’s biggest cheerleaders, declared it a common weed and began experimenting with means for eradicating it.

Local and state officials in Florida did what they could to stem kudzu’s green tidal wave as well. Santa Rosa County passed an ordinance in 1996 imposing fines on property owners who allowed kudzu vines to creep onto their neighbors’ land. Hillsborough County opted to use herbicides to beat back the vines. Tallahassee’s Parks and Recreation Department contracted with a sheep farmer to bring hundreds of lambs down to Florida to chow down on the woody growth.

Kudzu still covers millions of acres of territory in the southeastern United States, but is now under somewhat better control. Some people have even used the vine for basket weaving, confections and kudzu cigarettes! Most Floridians, however, prefer to keep the so-called “green menace” as far away as possible.

Woman weaving a basket from kudzu vines at Tallahassee Market Days (1986).

Woman weaving a basket from kudzu vines at Tallahassee Market Days (1986).

What are some of the most unusual plants in your Florida community? Let us know by leaving us a comment, and don’t forget to share this post with your friends and relatives!