The subject of numerous stories and folklore, Spanish moss has been called different names by the natives, explorers, and settlers who encountered it. Native Americans called it Itla-okla, which means “tree beard.” The French called it “Spanish beard,” because it reminded them of the conquistadors’ beards, while the Spanish called it “French hair.” It has also been known as “graybeard,” “tree hair,” “black moss,” and “vegetable horsehair,” among other monikers.
In addition to its many names, many legends also exist about the origins of this plant. One legend is the story of a beloved Native American princess who died and was buried at the base of a live oak. Her husband cut off her braids and draped them in the tree. As time passed, the braids turned gray and the wind carried the strands from tree to tree as a reminder of the love this couple shared.
Another Native American legend tells the story of an Indian chief’s favorite daughter. She was in love with a Spanish conquistador, but they were forbidden to see each other. As any good love story goes, they couldn’t stay apart, so the chief tied the conquistador high in the top of an ancient oak tree. The Spaniard told the chief that his love for the daughter would continue to grow even after death. His beard grew and became tangled in the branches, and his beard still hangs in the trees today.
Read more about Spanish moss, which is actually neither Spanish nor moss, in Robert Clark’s stunning photo essay on page 64.