Virginia scientists search for northernmost realm of Spanish moss

Gary Fleming, an ecologist with Virginia’s natural-heritage program, inspects moss near Eastville.

EASTVILLE — On a cold, damp morning, scientist Gary Fleming embarked on an expedition to investigate the mystery of the missing moss.

Fleming was looking for the northernmost patch of Spanish moss, that eerily beautiful symbol of the South. It thrives in warm, moist forests from Virginia to Argentina.

Many references say Spanish moss reaches its northern limit at First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach. And indeed, long, gray beards of moss hang there as thick as in any Southern gothic movie. (Think “Swamp Thing.”)

In the 1930s, however, renowned Harvard botanist M.L. Fernald found a good-sized patch of Spanish moss 35 miles to the north, in Northampton County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

That patch persisted for decades. Fleming, a 62-year-old, bespectacled ecologist with Virginia’s natural-heritage program, found it there in 1996.

Then, it apparently disappeared or died. Returning to the site with other scientists in 2009, Fleming couldn’t find the moss. “That was pretty mystifying to me,” he said.

“It was really neat,” Fleming said of the isolated moss patch. “To have it disappear after 50 years is really terrible.”

Last week, Fleming and fellow scientist Dot Field put on rain gear and boots and hiked into a dripping-wet woods to conduct a more extensive search for the moss.

Fleming said he was prepared to be disappointed.

Spanish moss is strange stuff.

It is not a moss but a flowering plant related to the pineapple. It is an epiphyte, or air plant. It has no roots, getting its nutrients from air and rain as it hangs from trees, telephone lines and the like.

Folklore is full of Spanish moss stories. One involves a beautiful woman — variously a Spanish lady or an Indian princess — with raven hair. When she dies, her lover places her long hair on a live oak tree, where it turns gray and spreads from tree to tree across the South.

Spanish moss can hang from just about anything, but it seems particularly fond of live oaks and cypress trees — themselves symbols of the South.

Several feet of moss can hang from a tree limb. The lacy strands are particularly lovely when they catch the late-day sun or wave in the breeze.

In the Deep South, the moss was once harvested as stuffing for car seats and mattresses. Today, it is used for mulch and floral adornments. According to some reports, it is stuffed into voodoo dolls.

Spanish moss strikes different people in different ways. It’s beautiful in the movie “Passion Fish” and full of foreboding in “Swamp Thing.”

“Why is Spanish moss gothic?” mused retired University of Houston engineering professor John H. Lienhard, who has written about the moss. “Maybe because William Faulkner writes such dreary stuff.”

“Esthetically, I think it’s attractive stuff,” Lienhard said, “as long as you get out of your mind this is some horrible, creepy-crawly thing that’s destroying trees.”

Contrary to widespread belief, Spanish moss is not a parasite like mistletoe, which draws nutrients from its host tree. The moss is mostly benign, although some say it can catch the wind and help a big storm drop a tree.

Birds and squirrels use Spanish moss in their nests. Birds most likely carried it to the Eastern Shore.

No one seems to know why the moss is called “Spanish.” John Hayden, a University of Richmond biologist, noted that the plant grows through much of Latin America.

“Since Spain dominated/colonized most of this region, one can reasonably assume that the plant was brought back to Spain at some point long ago and became known to the rest of Europe as ‘Spanish moss,’ ” Hayden said by email.

Articles about Spanish moss often talk about its “haunting beauty” or it contribution to “Southern gothic” imagery (along with graveyards and crumbling mansions).

“It’s beautiful and eerie at the same time,” said Veronica Gamino-Grillo, a visiting Californian who gazed at a swamp full of gray-green moss last week at First Landing park.

“The color itself is just ... ”

“Ethereal,” interjected her father-in-law, Denis Grillo.

Veronica’s husband, Ben, said we all have mossy-swamp images in our minds from movies “or Scooby-Doo.”

Fleming’s moss hunt didn’t look promising. You used to be able to see the moss hanging from trees along a country road near Eastville, but not now.

As Fleming and Field worked their way through the trees, Richmond Times-Dispatch photographer P. Kevin Morley said: “Isn’t that it?” In the forest, just off the road, he had found the northernmost patch of Spanish moss known to science — something experts hadn’t seen in 17 years.

The moss looked pretty but stressed. Clumps hung basically from one tree, a big holly. Spanish moss is sometimes described as resembling a hag’s gray hair, but a morning rain had made these strands dark and droopy. This moss was having a bad hair day.

Field, who lives on the Shore, said the moss’s presence surprised her. “I drive down this road all the time, and I kind of glance to see if I can see anything. It’s pretty well-camouflaged.”

About 45 minutes later, Morley found a second, slightly larger patch.

When they missed the moss in 2009, Fleming and Field said, it was late summer, and leaves on the trees may have obscured it.

The discoveries elated Fleming, but he said the moss appeared to be clinging to a “fairly marginal” existence here.

It wouldn’t take much — cold winters that kill it, or hurricane winds that blow it to the ground, or a chainsaw that takes its trees — for this Eastern Shore anomaly to disappear forever.

Field, however, was upbeat.

“We still have our claim to fame,” she said. “It’s all good.”

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