Spanish Moss and Orchids: A Tricky Combination

When I first started growing orchids, I set out to buy all the required potting material: orchid bark, charcoal, sphagnum moss, and orchid pots. Once home, I found out that I had mistakenly bought Spanish moss, which is an entirely different plant than Sphagnum moss. From a distance, it looks the same, and some brands even have beautiful Phalaenopsis orchids planted in Spanish moss as a decorative detail on the bag. The questions poured in…

Is Spanish Moss Good for Orchids?

Spanish moss is suited for growing orchids in hanging baskets or open baskets a decorative bromeliad since it retains humidity.  Yet, Spanish moss does not serve as a potting medium inside the slotted pot since it will decay quickly. In all, avoid Spanish moss when dealing with orchids, unless it is used as a decorative top layer.

Spanish Moss

Image Credit:
“If I wasn’t in awe of the spanish moss hanging off of the cypress and tupelo trees,
it was the awesome oaks” by jc.winkler is licensed under CC BY 2.0 “

What exactly is Spanish moss?

Before I go into why you should avoid Spanish moss for Phalaenopsis, Cattleya, Dendrobium, and any other orchid that is potted, I want to explain a little what Spanish moss is. It’s easier to explain later why it isn’t the best for orchids if you understand how the plant lives.

First of all, Spanish moss isn’t even moss. It’s a perennial herb and guess what—it comes from the pineapple family. I guess we can’t really choose our relatives, right? Talking about heritage, Spanish moss isn’t even from Spain.  It’s native to Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean.

When the first explorers reached the Americas, the Native Indians taught them that Spanish moss was tree hair, which translated as Itla-okla. Since these explorers were from France, they translated it into Spanish Beard, called Barbe Espangnol. From tree hair to a Spanish explorer’s beard, the English explorer later settled for Spanish moss. (Source)

Commonly related to the deep south imagery, Spanish moss is the grayish-green plant that hangs down from the limbs of enormous trees like southern live oak (Quercus virginiana) and bald-cypress (Taxodium distichum).

In its native environment, Spanish moss can be found in the southern United States from Delaware to Florida, and extend west up until Texas and Arkansas. Outside the United States, Spanish moss is found in Mexico, Bermuda, West Indies, Bahamas, Australia, and French Polynesia. Its native habitat does not linger too far from the equator and it has to live in environments where humidity is extremely high.

Spanish moss is also seen a lot in horror movies featuring swamplands and old creepy houses in the hot, humid areas of the bog or marsh lands. As a child, the first time I saw Spanish moss was in an episode of Scooby-Doo…

Needless to say, the imagery is hard to separate from the real plant because there’s nothing scary about this plant—despite the fact it will kill your orchid if used wrong.

Spanish moss is not a lichen that would attach to trees and act as a parasite. In fact, Spanish moss is neither a lichen nor a parasite. Spanish moss is an epiphyte, just like orchids are. Its technical name is Tillandsia usneoides. Tillandsias are air plants and normally planted in open terrariums in the nicks and crannies of tree stumps or branches.

They don’t have many roots, because they really don’t need them. Spanish mosses differ from orchids because they are bromeliads, and orchids are not. Both only use the tree bark to attach themselves and grow.

Image Credit: “Spanish Moss” by ConspiracyofHappiness is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Is Spanish moss Toxic OR Poisonous TO Pets?

The only harmful aspect of Spanish moss is that it might grow too much, blocking the light to the tree leaves. Unlike the popular haunted stories around Spanish moss, it is not toxic, harmful, or poisonous.

If you want to know what plants are harmful to your cats or your dogs, orchids included, then those articles would be a good place to start. I wrote them separately since a cat’s digestive system is different than a dog’s.

A lot of questions arise about using Spanish moss in vivariums since it isn’t poisonous or toxic. If you have a crested gecko, a snake, or even a hamster, you can use Spanish moss but it’s not advisable.

The problem with using Spanish moss for hamsters is that since it is a plant that absorbs humidity from the air, it will contain some amount of humidity at all times. This could lead to respiratory problems and molding feet.

In nature, the Spanish moss sometimes gets too heavy to be suspended from the trees and falls to the ground. Frogs find the moss a great place to hang out if the tree is close to ponds and lakes.

I read on a Frog Forum and one person said his frog would constantly get tangled up in the Spanish moss. All other opinions were slightly favorable in the sense Spanish Moss would not harm, yet preferred other material. It’s best to buy live moss and stay away from Spanish moss.

As for crested geckos and other reptiles on the lesser humidity side, the Spanish moss’ humidity isn’t the problem. They actually enjoy it. The problem is when frogs and geckos start to hunt and get a mouthful of Spanish moss. This can lead to choking and having the moss get stuck. I’d stay away from it, personally.

I doubt you came to this page to read about household pets, so I’ll get on with my main point…

How does Spanish Moss Affect Orchids?

Since Spanish moss is native to areas where the humidity is high, the constant dampness of the Spanish moss will provoke orchid root rot when potted. Sphagnum moss, on the other hand, will dry out quicker than Spanish moss and is more indicated for orchids.

As a test, I planted a mini Phal in Spanish moss (picture below) and the potting media turned into a slimy soup after a month. In an attempt to save itself, the orchid produced a keiki. I changed potting media and placed it back into Sphagnum, which the orchid highly appreciated. The orchid is actually doing well now.

The only way Spanish moss could possibly be good for orchids is as a top layer that collects humidity and prevents the aerial roots from drying out. In fact, this is the main use of Spanish moss for orchid care: Vandas.

Vanda orchids, or any other orchid that is in a bare basket and has all its roots exposed, benefit from the extra layer of moss that lays on top of them. Spanish moss is so airy that it allows great airflow for orchid roots in balance to added humidity when mounted.

In a pot, the air couldn’t reach the roots fast enough to dry them even with the slits, slots, holes, and other forms of ventilation. Spanish moss deteriorated quickly.

The reason this happens is that Spanish moss that is bought in stores is a dead moss, and it only has one thing in mind: decaying. Since it is no longer alive, it will decompose as all dead material does over time.

orchid Potted in Spanish Moss
Image Credit: © 2020 Orchideria.  All Rights Reserved. 

Is Spanish Moss the Same as Sphagnum Moss?

Spanish and Sphagnum moss are two entirely different plants and will react with your orchids differently.

Sphagnum moss (which you can read in much more detail in this article with 10 reasons why sphagnum is good for orchids) will absorb the water and nutrients and slowly release them in time. It’s an excellent addition to your potting medium because it also dries out quickly, not leaving your roots soggy.

Not one orchid likes to be soggy all the time, and even those that live near waterfalls, do not live in the direct water flow or underwater—which is exactly what Spanish moss will do to your orchid.

Spanish moss is entirely decorative, adding no benefits to your potting medium. Spanish moss, being an air plant and a bromeliad, doesn’t mind to have accumulated water around it. Yet the bags that are available for purchase, are dead Spanish moss and will not grow. If you purchase live Spanish moss then the story is different, but I’ve been having a hard time finding sellers.

Well, let me rephrase that. I can find them easily, like this one on Amazon (Affiliate Link).
See how green that is compared to the grayish-dead moss from flower shops and arts and crafts stores? The problem is the price. I am most certainly not paying that much for shipping and handling on top of the price of Spanish moss.

So, that’s a pretty good factor for not buying it in my book.

Sphagnum moss is cheaper and better for orchids than Spanish moss is. You can check the price here (Affiliate Link to Various Brands)

Using Spanish Moss as A Top Layer for Orchids

By now you already know that the use of Spanish moss in orchid care is limited, but not useless. To use Spanish moss in orchid care, you’ll first need to either bake it or microwave it to kill the bugs and insects.

There was a widespread rumor about Spanish moss having chiggers and spider mites. In its natural habitat, hanging from big oak trees, Spanish moss is usually pest-free. Birds find Spanish moss a great source of nesting material, but other than that, it usually comes free of insects, bugs, and creepy crawlers.

The problem is when the Spanish moss falls on the ground.

As soon as that happens, chiggers can be a huge problem. Spiders also find it perfect to create intricate webs.

This is why it’s important to find a way to sterilize the Spanish moss before you add it to your orchids. The dead Spanish moss that you find packed up in stores will not have this problem and can be used directly.

After you have rid the moss of pests, Spanish moss must be soaked for better absorption.

Remember that Spanish moss will retain water? If you place the dry moss on your plant your plant will dry out faster. Because of the laws of osmosis, that elements move from a higher concentration to a lower concentration, the water will move from your orchid roots into the moss to hydrate it. Yet, that was the opposite of what you wanted it to do. The result is a dry, dead orchid.

Let the Spanish moss soak for at least an hour so it can have the time to retain water and not dry out too soon. Wrap a layer of moss loosely around the top of the potting medium if you have a potted orchid.

If your orchid is in a hanging basket, bare-rooted, then you can fluffy the roots with the Spanish moss and dangle it down along with the roots. The effect is a decorative one, but it has the purpose of retaining water in the air and transferring it to the orchid roots. This prevents the orchid roots from drying out completely.

Mounted orchids in open baskets with Spanish moss will need to be misted daily if not twice a day depending on your climate. If grown indoors, the mounted orchids with Spanish moss benefits from a humidifier, too.

The trick will be in not watering the moss too much while the roots remain too dry. I wrote an article about watering mounted orchids which you can read here if you’d like more information on that.

Whatever you do, don’t pile on the moss so it suffocates the roots, because they still need to be accessible to sunlight. Remember the one problem with Spanish moss, besides the fact it doesn’t dry out fast enough and decays quickly? It grows so thick that the light is unable to penetrate the roots.

If you are using live Spanish moss, this can quickly become a problem. If you are using the dead Spanish moss that is more widely available, then this is never going to be a problem. To water this kind of orchid setup, you can read this article where I explain a few different methods and tips.

The obstacle in this open orchid basket setup is that you have to clean out the decaying material (Spanish moss) once it starts to fall apart. Spanish moss will need to be traded out yearly or at the most, every two years.

If you want a tutorial for a hanging basket and not an open-wood basket, then this article I wrote is a good place to start.  The result is good for a couple of months while the orchids are in bloom, but I wouldn’t suggest it for longer than that.

Don’t Stop Learning!

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Orchid Fertilization

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In all, I hope that this article clarified a few details about Spanish moss and its use for orchid care. If there is a question that I didn’t answer, please leave a comment below and I’ll get in touch.

Happy Cultivating!

Signature Amanda Matthews


Amanda Matthews

Amanda Matthews is a theological professor, author, pastor, and a motivational speaker. She's passionate about spreading hope and teaching. Her hobbies include biking, cultivating orchids, and exploring nature trails. She now lives in Kansas, while raising her two children. To read more, go to https://orchideria.com/about-the-author

2 thoughts on “Spanish Moss and Orchids: A Tricky Combination

  1. Should I leave my live Spanish moss attached to my vanda orchid when I dunk it in water for 10 minutes everyday or should I water them separately?

    1. I have orchids mounted in my condo Atrim trees and use Spanish moss from oak trees for decorative purposes. It has become thick and I think my tree orchids are not doing as well as before. Should I remove it or just keep few strands to hide the sphagnum moss they grew in?

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