Legends of the Moss
Updated: Aug 2
ZZ Top beards. Spiderwebs. Christmas tinsel. The Spanish moss that drapes swooping branches of Lowcountry live oaks has evoked images such as these for centuries (although, granted, the ZZ Top reference may be more recent). Legends abound about the hanging plant's fantastical beginnings, as each new group who encountered it seems to have created its own origin story. As you read the following tales of this Carolina icon, ask yourself: Might they hold a nugget of truth?
The Princess's Braids
Long ago, before Europeans had arrived in our fair Lowcountry, Native American tribes called the Sea Islands and the nearby mainland home. For thousands of years they lived in peace on these Southern shores, the calm only broken occasionally when conflict arose between tribes. During this time, the beautiful daughter of a mainland chief fell in love with a
handsome brave from a rival island tribe. They would meet secretly beneath the low-hanging branches of an ancient live oak tree and dream of a happy future together. Finally, the brave gathered the courage to ask the chief for his daughter's hand in marriage. The answer was an emphatic "NEVER!"
When she learned of her father's declaration that she could not marry her true love, the princess ran weeping to the couple's secret rendezvous point. Not long after, the brave discovered his sweetheart's dead body beneath the tree, her heart broken. He buried her there, in their special spot, hanging her long black braids on a low-hanging branch to mark her grave. Over time, the locks turned gray and spread throughout the trees in the Lowcountry--a reminder that true love never dies.
The Pirate's Beard
In the 17th century, European pirates discovered the beauty of the Carolinas and frequented the hidden coves and creeks of the Sea Islands to rest and repair their ships. One such pirate was a menacing Spaniard by the name of Gorez Goz. During an island visit to collect fresh water, Goz and his men encountered a chief and his lovely daughter. (Apparently all of the Lowcountry tribal chiefs had attractive offspring.) The aging, slovenly Goz immediately demanded that the girl be given to him. When her father refused, the pirate threatened to kill them both. At this, the clever teen made a deal: If Goz spared her father, she would let the old pirate chase her. If he caught her, she would go with him willingly.
The arrogant old captain soon found that he was no match for the swiftly running young maiden. Having lost sight of her, he wandered through the wooded island growing angrier by the moment. But then he heard a sweet voice calling down to him from the branches of a live oak tree. "Come and get me!" the girl called to him with a laugh. The taunting infuriated Goz, and he found the energy to jump to a low-hanging branch and begin his ascent up the twisting arms of the live oak. The higher he climbed, though, the nimble maiden simply climbed higher until she had reached the end of long branch.
"You can't get away from me now!" the pirate called. "You have nowhere to go!" The maiden laughed and dropped from the tree, landing with a splash in the creek below, where she quickly swam to safety. Goz, meanwhile, found he could climb neither up nor down, as the smaller branches of the live oak wrapped tightly around him and would not let him go. He eventually died in the tree, but his long beard continued to grow, spreading through all the trees of the island and even to the mainland forests until "Spanish Beard" filled the Lowcountry.
The Real Story?
When French explorers arrived in the Lowcountry in the late 16th century, they discovered that local Native Americans referred to the wispy plants hanging from area trees as "Tree Hair." Adding their own twist, the close-shaven French dubbed the plant "Spanish Beard" as a jab at the facial hair then popular with their rivals. Not to be outdone, the short-haired Spaniards began calling the plant "French Hair" as a poke at the long strands the Frenchmen found fashionable.
Over time, the French label stuck and "Spanish Moss" became the common name for this flora that is neither Spanish nor moss. In fact, Spanish Moss is a relative of the pineapple and is an epiphyte--a plant that draws its nutrients and moisture from the air. Contrary to common belief, it does not harm the trees in which it lives but merely uses their branches for support, particularly loving the horizontal branches of the live oak tree. Insects and snakes enjoy nesting in Spanish Moss that has fallen on the ground, so take care when picking it up, and be sure to boil it or spray it with insecticide before taking it home.
Have you heard a different legend to explain the origins of Spanish Moss? If so, please leave a comment below!