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!

Planting Seeds

When most people think of Florida, they probably don’t think about trees. But the state is home to 14.5 million acres of forests comprising almost half the land area. Efforts to conserve Florida’s many trees date back to the late 1800s. At that time, interest in tree planting and protection spread across the United States with the creation of Arbor Day in Nebraska in 1872 and the founding of the American Forestry Association in 1875. In Florida, Ellen Call Long of Tallahassee stands out as one of the earliest advocates for tree conservation. Her interest in agriculture and ecology helped lead the way in Florida’s involvement in the conservation movement.

Portrait of Ellen Call Long in Tallahassee, Florida (1880s).

Ellen Call Long was born in 1825 at the Grove (Call-Collins House) in Florida’s capital city. Although she lived during a time when women had very little direct political influence, Long was able to exert some influence over local political leaders. Because her father, Richard Keith Call, served twice as Florida’s territorial governor (1836-39 and 1841-44), Long used her political connections to steer Florida towards forest conservation.

With the help of Florida’s Governor Edward A. Perry, she was able to bring Florida into the national conversation about tree conservation in the mid-1880s. Many states at this time were becoming increasingly aware of how tree destruction negatively affected people and the environment. A lumber shortage in the United States would have had devastating economic consequences, but the harvesting of timber nearly decimated the tree population in the Northeast and Midwest. Long did not want this to happen to her beloved state, so she found a way to get involved in the conservation movement.

Lumber classification guidelines adopted by the Pensacola Timber & Lumber Exchange in 1873. Florida’s lumber industry dates back to the 1830s. State Library of Florida, Florida Collection, BR0029.

Her fascination with the natural world began two decades prior, during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Long took an interest in silkworm cultivation as a way for women to earn an income while their male relatives were fighting in the war. Her enthusiasm for silkworm cultivation continued throughout her life —  a silk U.S. flag made from silkworms cultivated by Long was presented to Governor Perry at his inauguration in 1885.

Mena E. Williams Hirschberg holding the flag made of silk presented to Florida Governor Edward A. Perry during his inauguration in 1885.

She also later wrote “The Mulberry Tree and Its Uses” in 1889, recommending the mulberry tree as the solution to the “careless destruction of timber” in the United States. She suggested that because the mulberry tree was adaptable and could grow quickly in almost every climate and soil, it could help reverse deforestation. Moreover, if people were to plant mulberry trees across the country and cultivate silkworms as well,  a whole new industry might develop. Although her efforts to create a silk culture in the United States ultimately failed, Long’s interest in trees continued.

A mulberry tree in Mulberry, Florida. Mulberry was founded because it was conveniently located near four big phosphate plants — Palmetto Phosphate, Kingsford, Bone Valley and Land Pebble — in operation in the vicinity of this large mulberry tree.

After his election, Governor Perry became increasingly involved with the conservation movement, no doubt because of his friendship with Long. On December 16, 1885, Governor Perry hosted the first Southern Forestry Congress at DeFuniak Springs, Florida. He invited all Southern governors and requested that one delegate from each congressional district in their state attend the meeting. Delegates from the American Forestry Association, which was founded 10 years before, were also in attendance. The congress intended to address the importance of laws concerning forestry and other issues related to the subject. The delegates elected Long secretary of the congress, and during their second meeting in 1887, she delivered the welcome address to attendees. The group didn’t just talk about trees, they planted their own during their annual meetings. Each delegation planted a tree in its state’s honor, and each governor was also asked to plant and dedicate a tree honoring a historical figure from his state.

In 1888, the Southern Forestry Congress merged with the American Forestry Association (AFA) during the AFA’s annual meeting. Long presented a paper during the meeting titled, “Some Features of Tree-growth in Florida,” in which she advocated for controlled burning to maintain long-leaf  pine forests 50 years before it became the industry standard.  The paper was published in the proceedings a year later.

Florida Forestry Association members from Leon County managing a controlled burn at the J. W. Williams Memorial Forest (1959). Ellen Call Long advocated for controlled burning in 1889.

Governor Perry continued supporting efforts to conserve Florida’s tree population in 1886 and subsequent years by issuing the state’s first Arbor Day proclamation. He declared Wednesday, February 10 as Arbor Day in Florida. The proclamation states that tress “…tend to add to the healthfulness and comfort of our people and to the beauty of our State…” and requests that Floridians plant trees on this day, specifically mentioning schoolchildren, who will find Arbor Day “the most profitable day of the year.” The Sunshine State has been celebrating every year since, with the holiday now falling on the third Friday in January.

Governor Perry’s Arbor Day proclamation, 1886. State Archives of Florida, Proclamations and executive orders, Series 13, Volume 3, Page 193.

Ellen Call Long’s involvement in the conservation movement brought Florida into the national discussion about tree conservation. It is partly because of her interest in forestry that Floridians made an effort to protect the state’s trees, and Florida is now home to 37 state forests and three national forests.

You can learn more about Ellen Call Long in the Richard Keith Call Papers on Florida Memory. This collection contains digital scans of original letters to and from Richard Keith Call and Ellen Call Long, manuscript material on Florida history written by Richard Keith Call and Ellen Call Long, and miscellaneous materials connected to the life and times of the Call family.

Resources

Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “Florida Forests.” Accessed April 25, 2018.  https://www.freshfromflorida.com/Divisions-Offices/Florida-Forest-Service/For-Landowners/Management-Planning/Florida-Forests.

Proceedings of the American Forestry Congress at its Meeting Held at Atlanta, Ga., December, 1888. Washington: Gibson Bros., 1889.

“Save the Trees: Work of the Southern Forestry Congress.” The Weekly Advertiser (Montgomery, Alabama), November 3, 1887.

“Southern Forestry Congress.” The Weekly Advertiser (Montgomery, Alabama), December 22, 1885.

The Grove Museum. “Ellen Call Long.” Accessed April 25, 2018.  http://thegrovemuseum.com/learn/history/ellen/.

“The Southern Forestry Congress.” The Morning Mercury (Huntsville, Alabama), October 15, 1885.

“The Southern Forestry Congress.” The Weekly Advertiser (Montgomery, Alabama), February 3, 1887.

Some Trees Have Knees

If someone asked you to name something that lives for centuries, can grow over a hundred feet tall, and can have dozens of knees, what would you say it was? It might sound like some hideous creature, but most Floridians would know it’s actually the majestic bald cypress.

A cypress swamp in Palmdale (1961).

A cypress swamp in Palmdale (1961).

The bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is a familiar sight near Florida’s many lakes, rivers, creeks, swamps, and springs. The trees generally take their time to grow, but that’s not really a problem for a cypress. They can live for hundreds of years. The Senator, a bald cypress that grew near Longwood in Seminole County until it was tragically burned in 2012, was estimated to be about 3,500 years old at the time of its death. (More on the Senator Tree here).

Tourists holding hands around the Senator Tree in Longwood (circa 1930).

Tourists holding hands around the Senator Tree in Longwood (circa 1930).

One of the bald cypress’ most unusual characteristics is its “knees.” The knees are conical growths protruding up from the root system that radiates out from the tree’s trunk. They often have a knobby, knee-like appearance at the top. Their function is unknown, although studies suggest they may help the cypress absorb oxygen and remain stable in loose wet soils.

Cypress trees and knees at Fisheating Creek in Glades County (circa 1980s).

Cypress trees and knees at Fisheating Creek in Glades County (circa 1980s).

Cypress root system, photographed in Collier County (1978).

Cypress root system, photographed in Collier County (1978).

Cypress wood has long been admired for its beautiful grain, durability, and the ease with which it can be shaped and cut for building purposes. In the early 20th century, logging companies bought up vast tracts of land and cut much of the bald cypress growing in Florida swamps. The hearts of these trees, some of which were likely approaching a millenium in age, were sawed into lumber and marketed as “tidewater cypress.” The cypress industry is still in business, although the supply of available trees has dwindled considerably. Many cypress stands are now part of publicly owned protected wetlands.

Men sitting on a particularly large cypress log transported by train to the Burton-Swartz Lumber Company mill in Perry (1926).

Men sitting on a particularly large cypress log transported by train to the Burton-Swartz Lumber Company mill in Perry (1926).

As for the knees, they too have been a prized commodity. Their distinctive shape, natural broad base, and easy carvability make them perfect for creating figurines, birdhouses, and other small knick-knacks. Tom Gaskins of Palmdale, Florida made a career out of carving and shaping cypress knees for sale. He developed a Cypress Kneeland museum in Palmdale, featuring a collection of carved, peeled, and otherwise altered knees, plus a catwalk zig-zagging through an actual cypress swamp.

Along the path, visitors could see some of Gaskins’ experimental methods for shaping the knees as they grew. At various times, he tried flattening the knees with weights and carving designs into them so that the wooden flesh of the knees would grow around the cuts. Gaskins passed away in 1998, and the Cypress Kneeland Museum closed in 2000.

Tom Gaskins, artist and owner of the Cypress Kneeland attraction in Palmdale (1987).

Tom Gaskins, artist and owner of the Cypress Kneeland attraction in Palmdale (1987).

One of Tom Gaskins' creations (1987).

One of Tom Gaskins’ creations (1987).

Cypress trees and their unusual knees are just one of the features that make Florida a unique environment and all the more interesting. Which of Florida’s distinctive characteristics is your favorite? Share this post on social media or leave a comment below and get the conversation started!

Cypress sentinels watch over Lake Eloise in Polk County at sunset (1980).

Cypress sentinels watch over Lake Eloise in Polk County at sunset (1980).