Not long ago, I had to attend a meeting at the Bragg-Mitchell Mansion on Spring Hill Avenue. Having a little time before things got started, I decided to take a stroll, letting my thoughts wander beneath the spreading live oaks that so distinguish the grounds there. The weather was mild, a westerly sun shot through the branches, and within moments, I was enchanted by a hanging tendril of Spanish moss suffused with light and shining like Christmas tinsel. My first response was rapture, followed quickly by the perplexed question — where has all the Port City’s Spanish moss gone?
It was abundant in my youth a half century ago. I well remember live oak trees laden with prodigious ragged curtains of the stuff, reaching practically to the ground. Government Street, Spring Hill Avenue and other thoroughfares were littered with windblown or fallen clumps of it, and bits even fluttered from power lines.
As kids, we were intimately familiar with its smell and texture — who didn’t hold a fistful of it to their chin, mimicking an old man? At Christmastime, some people fashioned it into beautiful wreaths, distinctively Gulf Coast. Travel guides and hotels celebrated it for the tourists.
Everything from restaurant menus to coffee mugs reprinted a romantic poem of its origins. “A lovely princess and her love, upon their wedding day, ” the verse memorably went, “Were struck down by a savage foe amidst a bitter fray.” The rhyme goes on to describe how sorrowing friends buried the couple, but not before cutting off the bride’s black hair and placing it in an oak tree. From there it hung “for all the world to see./ With the years the locks turned gray, and spread from tree to tree.” In short, Spanish moss was ubiquitous, defining the city as much as its historic ironwork and humid air.
But gazing at that tendril at the Bragg-Mitchell, it struck me that there are now only a few places around town where Spanish moss can be found at all, and in far less quantity than before. Spring Hill Avenue has some, there’s a spot on Airport Boulevard at Island Court just east of Florida Street and there are a few respectable displays down toward Brookley Field and in other isolated enclaves.
Spanish moss’ retreat in these parts is most often blamed on pollution. This would seem to make sense. It’s classified as a flowering epiphytic plant belonging to the Bromeliad family. In other words, it gets what it needs from rainwater and air. Acid rain and automobile exhaust would appear to be a death sentence, but surprisingly, there’s no scientific consensus on it. Cities such as Savannah have much more Spanish moss than Mobile, despite serious pollution issues, and it can be seen flourishing within yards of chemical plants.
For my own part, I believe that Hurricane Frederic stripped away much of it in 1979. Previous strong storms had done the same thing, of course, but the moss always returned. After Frederic, however, there was a significant difference in the local landscape. The relatively sheltered stands of moss-laden trees in Wragg Swamp and along Three Mile Creek, Eslava Creek and Chickasaw Creek had all been cut down as shopping malls were built and streams channelized and developed. Thus, these places were no longer protected havens from whence Spanish moss could once again propagate into town.
And so these days we are mostly bereft of our old gray-green signifier. But amid the hurly-burly, I am grateful for the occasional exception, when I look up and see a little Spanish moss swaying above me still.
John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”
text by John S. Sledge • photo by Kathy Hicks