The Search for Spanish Moss

By Ben Harris

          For those of us who raise plants in the house, but are really amateur field botanists at heart, bromeliad field study is impossible because none exist in our normal stomping grounds. We are not sufficiently affluent to come up with the bucks or the justification to the spouse to journey into Central America.

          The only real possibility is the Southland and Spanish Moss, Tillandsia usneoides.

          In my pre-vacation reading about the area known as The Outer Banks of North Carolina, I noted that the area on Bodie Island known as " Nags Head Woods " is owned by the Nature Conservancy and is reverting to its natural state. The area, which hugs the sound side of the island, is six or so miles long and perhaps a half to one mile wide. It is old dunes interspersed with low freshwater swamp ponds and covered with marine hardwood forest which support Spanish Moss. At latitude 36 degrees 00 minutes it is almost the same as my East Tennessee mountain home which is 36 degrees and 07 minutes and pretty far north for tropical stuff.

This map shows the Outer Banks of North Carolina, extending north and south from Cape Hatteras.

Below, I will show larger scale maps of small portions of the areas visited. --CD--

          This occurrence of Spanish Moss was news to me. I have been to the Outer Banks many times and have visited the woodland areas on not only Bodie Island but also further south on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands. I remembered no Spanish Moss. I have spent many days in the field on Cumberland Island in Georgia and am very familiar with barrier island marine forests and heavy duty Spanish Moss habitat. I have 6-year-old specimens growing in my office taken from St. Mary's Georgia, which is on the mainland near Cumberland Island.

          What I had here was a real field problem: Is there really Spanish Moss at Nags Head on Bodie Island and in Buxton Woods on Hatteras? What is the northern extent of the range for Tillandsia usneoides?

          My wife is accustomed to wild goose chases in pursuit of various wild flowers and readily added the search for Spanish Moss to her itinerary of lighthouses and our National Park Passport Stamps. She understood that there was potential for real science here.

Nags Head Woods
          We made the trip in mid September 1998.The Study Route began in Raleigh on US Route 64, across the Alligator River into Dare County and out onto Roanoke Island, birthplace of the first English Child in the New World. From Manteo across the Roanoke Sound to Bodie Island and Nags Head, thence north to Duck and the Currituck light house.

          The trip through the mainland portion of eastern North Carolina passes through heavy woodlands, then continues across the sound on to Roanoke Island. I made a careful windshield survey of both main and back roads and saw no Spanish Moss. The latitude of US 64 is close enough to that of Nags Head Woods. It is my view that the mainland of northern eastern NC does not support Spanish Moss.

          The area around Duck NC and the Currituck lighthouse also contains what is referred to as marine forest. It consists of some pine species and several Oak species I can't identify but do not believe to be Live Oak. I looked extensively in these areas and found no Spanish Moss. At this point I am almost to Virginia and the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp.

          The Nature Conservancy purchased Nags Head Woods some time ago and pretty much just lets it sit there. Their property is adjacent to the Jockey Ridge State Park which contains the southern portion of the woods and Jockey Ridge, a large sand dune and the most prominent feature on the Island.

          Jockey Ridge is bald, and unlike the dunes to the north in Nags Head Woods, supports no plant life. It is not lifeless because every evening in summer, it is covered with people. There is a sand road which is hard to find extending from the state park northward more or less in the center of the Nature Conservancy tract. It is beautiful drive through the eerie quiet of the very dark woods. I drove and I walked and finally found, in a clearing containing a cemetery, a minor growth of Spanish Moss. The author was correct, but just barely. The plant was there in the pine trees. It collected the falling pine needles making a real jumble. It is certainly not as common as it is further south where it dominates all the trees. It was present in isolated patches in isolated trees. I was chomping at the bit to take off into the interior, but my wife was not about to take out into such snakey looking country. Another trip with my flower hunting hiking buddy is thus absolutely necessary.

          We continued southward across Oregon Inlet, site of the Red October's hiding place, for 50 miles to Buxton.

Buxton Woods
          The island swells here and becomes quite wide. I spent an hour or so in Buxton Woods said to be Spanish Moss habitat. I saw none. A portion of the woods I always thought to be part of the Cape Hatteras National Sea Shore now contains residences tucked away among the trees. I was able to survey a much larger area than I had hoped. I found no Spanish Moss. I continued south to the village of Hatteras where I also checked out the woods and found nothing. I found no Spanish Moss on the Island of Hatteras. I also found no habitat destruction because the marine forest is as I remember it for the last 40 years or so.

          For the record, the Cape Hatteras lighthouse sits seaward approximately one half mile from the edge of Buxton Woods, and next year the 200 foot high structure will begin its move across the freshwater swamp into Buxton Woods from its present location only a few yards from the ocean. Presumably in the year 2000 or thereabouts, it will be possible to climb the lighthouse and with binoculars make a detailed search for Spanish Moss in the Buxton Woods.

          From Hatteras we boarded a ferry for the ride across Hatteras Inlet to Ocracoke. The village of Ocracoke lies roughly sixteen miles southwest of the inlet. Typically, the island swells enough for the village and a marine forest. It was thoroughly explored: First the area around the residential area where we stayed, then the light house and then the big woods which looks out onto Teach's Hole, the site of the capture and death of the pirate Blackbeard. It was the same as before. You think it looks like it should be there because it is in similar looking places in South Carolina, but it is not. I found no Spanish Moss on Ocracoke.

          From Ocracoke we hired a boat to take us still southward to the deserted village on Portsmouth Island. We braved hordes and I mean hordes of mosquitoes (large enough to be visible on radar) to explore the ghost village and the road through the marine forest. I found no Spanish Moss on Portsmouth Island.

          Returning to Ocracoke, we took a ferry across twenty or so miles of open water on Pamlico Sound back to the mainland at Cedar Island. Although it is an island, it is mostly salt marsh and is not part of the Outer Banks. North Carolina is beginning to look a lot like the marshes of South Carolina and Georgia. There is one difference. There is no Spanish Moss in the trees at the margin.

Core Banks and Morehead City
          We continued southwest to Harkers Island, the Gateway to the Core Banks National Sea Shore. The Outer Banks end with Portsmouth Island and the Core Banks begin. The Core banks are very narrow, only beach and dunes except for the swelled area at the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. We hired a boat from Harkers Island across Core Sound to the Island. I thoroughly explored the marine forest consisting mainly of pine trees and found no Spanish Moss. There is no Spanish Moss on Core Banks or Harkers Island or the adjacent Mainland.

          From Harkers Island we continued west through the coastal woodlands and saltmarsh to Morehead City. The objective was not botany or lighthouses but eating at the Sanitary Fish Market, one of the best seafood houses anywhere. We were not disappointed. The fish and soft shell crabs were outstanding. We did foray out onto the Bogue Banks and into the marine forest at Theodore Roosevelt Natural Area. A thorough search was made and there was no Spanish Moss. There is no Spanish Moss on the mainland at Morehead City or across the sound on Bogue Banks. The latitude at Morehead City/Bogue Banks/ Cape Lookout is 34 degrees and 40 minutes. From there we proceeded back to Raleigh on US 70/ I40. No Spanish Moss was observed anywhere along this route.

          The finding is that there is a discontinuity in the habitat of Tillandsia usneoides, which spans at least 1 degree and thirty minutes latitude or 140 miles from south to north. Somehow the species traveled from the mainland and out to sea to the barrier islands. Over the years of fierce storms it has survived as a battered remnant on the windward side of one island in the protection of very dense forest nestled in among the dunes.

          The questions to research further are: 1) Where does the habitat begin again, in southern North Carolina or northern South Carolina? and 2) Is there any outpost of habitat north of Nags Head Woods?

          I think I viewed the northernmost boundary of the Tillandsia usneoides habitat in Nags Head Woods, and if that is so, I viewed the northernmost individuals of the family Bromeliaceae.

          What do you think?

A Letter to Ben Harris

          I received a message from Mr. Ashley C. Leach of Virginia. He is also interested in the occurrence of Spanish Moss in his area. He wrote a message intended for the original author, Ben Harris, but it wasn't delivered so he sent it to me. I have also been unable to contact Mr. Harris for some time. So I will include Mr. Leach's message here as it adds to the saga pf the northern boundary of Tillandsia usneoides . Spanish Moss!

          "Please forward to Ben Harris:

Dear Mr. Harris,
          My name is Ashley Christopher Leach, and I came across your web page in search of the northern growth limit of spanish moss.
          I am from North Carolina, but I live in Norfolk, VA. Although I am not a botanist or horticulturalist, I have always had a fascination with Spanish Moss due to his prominence and added mystic of the American South. So in my many drives throughout North Carolina, I have also searched for the elusive Spanish Moss.
          I know for a fact that Spanish Moss grows in Sea Shore State Park in Virginia Beach, VA. The state park is home to lagoons and cypress swamps, and it grows amply out there. I believe this to be the northern limit of Spanish Moss as I asked a park ranger there once, and she did confirm my belief.

          Spanish Moss can also be found on Knotts Island, North Carolina as well as in Merchant Mill Pond which is considerably inland from the coast (around the Gatesville, NC area...this area also happens to be the northern most point for the North American Alligator.)
          If you drive down Route 17, it grows in abundance along the intercoastal waterway, especially outside of the little town of Hertford, NC.

          As far as the Outer Banks is concerned, there are two places where I have readily seen Spanish Moss. There is an area called the Woods Road where the moss grows thickly. If you travel on some of the back roads off Woods Road, you will find it growing even on live oaks that inhabit that area.
          Also, the area of Colington Island which is just south of the Wright Brothers Memorial. If you travel Colington Road all the way to the end, you will see Spanish Moss growing on trees and more live oaks that inhabit that area. In fact, some of those live oaks (from my own personal reading) were used by Europeans to hang Indians.

          I hope this information is of use to you. Please contact me if you have any more questions.
                    Mr. Ashley C. Leach"

          Thank you very much for this letter. I hope Ben sees it!

Please send your note to Ben Harris