Did you ever wonder what Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) was good for? We have massive clumps of the stuff growing in our trees or in little piles all over the landscape.
Historically Spanish moss was used for a wide variety of products. Colonists used mud mixed with Spanish moss to caulk their cabins. Spanish moss was used for weaving blankets, stuffing upholstery, making bridles and braids, as packing material, even as filaments for repairing fisherman’s nets.
It was only recently that I learned how extremely useful Spanish moss can be for the gardener. I was attending a workshop on wild edible plants when an herbalist from Valrico mentioned that Spanish moss can be boiled to make a tea that is really beneficial for plants. The only cautionary note was that the brew really stinks. Since I didn’t want to prepare a smelly tea in the kitchen, I decided I’d go for a sun brewed tea.
I gathered up enough Spanish moss to fill a five gallon bucket and covered it with rainwater. Then I set it out in the sun for 24 hours to let it steep. I was impressed with how well the tea worked, especially for getting plants to fruit and flower. This led me to conclude that while it’s a little low in nitrogen, it’s otherwise a very suitable fertilizer. A daily application of Spanish moss tea more than tripled the number of muscadine grapes that we harvested last summer.
A few months later I wanted to experiment with Spanish moss as a dry fertilizer. I cut up clumps of it with scissors until it had the consistency of a granular fertilizer. Then I added some dried blood (purchased in a garden store) to give it a boost of nitrogen. I went around to a few plants and poked holes in the root zone which I would then fill with my homegrown fertilizer mix.
I can only describe the results as dramatic. The plant growth was vigorous in all stages. My homemade fertilizer was powerful enough to pamper even the heavier feeders like tomato plants. There was never any blossom end rot in the tomatoes or peppers. We’ve been using the Spanish moss fertilizer exclusively at the Temple Terrace Community Garden. This stuff really works.
I speculate that Spanish moss must be loaded with the nutrients that are essential for plant growth. Because it is an epiphyte (air plant), its cells have to already contain all the nutrients that a plant needs in order to survive. As the Spanish moss starts to break down in the soil, it releases these nutrients which greatly benefit any plant that is fertilized by it.
How safe is Spanish moss? Well you can actually eat it. The part you eat is the inner green part found on the new growth of Spanish moss. The only problem is these little tidbits are really bland and you expend more calories gathering it than you get from eating it.
Here’s the recipe for a homemade, mostly local, totally sustainable fertilizer:
- Find some clumps of Spanish moss either on the ground or in a tree.
- You want to harvest the freshest moss that you can find, the moss with a vibrant grayish green color.
- If you’re removing it from a tree, be sure to leave a few live strands on each limb so it can replenish itself.
- Spanish moss is much easier to cut if it is moist. The dry dead material is extremely tough and resistant to cutting. There may be some ball moss mixed in and that is also more resistant to cutting.
- Cut up a few handfuls of Spanish moss as finely chopped as you can. You want it to look like some kind of granular fertilizer.
- Combine 80% Spanish moss with 20% dried blood (blood meal) and put it in a plastic bag.
- The dried blood will tend to sink to the bottom of the bag, so shake it right before you apply it.
- The sooner you can apply your fertilizer, the better it will work. Poke a hole in the outer part of the root zone and pour in your fertilizer.
- Then cover up your hole so that squirrels and raccoons are less likely to be attracted to it.
- I make one hole to fertilize a small plant, two holes for a medium plant and three or more holes for larger plants.
Enjoy your newly invigorated plants!