Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Not Spanish moss

with 31 comments


UPDATE. Based on Bill Dodd’s comment that he thought this is a lichen, Usnea trichodea, rather than the epiphytic vascular plant known as Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides (where usneoides means ‘looking like Usnea‘), I returned to Monument Hill on January 3, 2017, and confirmed that this is indeed a lichen. I observed the bone-like articulations Bill mentioned, so this probably is the “beard” lichen Usnea trichodea. I’ve updated the text below and added a link to the true Spanish moss of Texas.


An alternate common name for California’s lace lichen, which you saw last time, is Spanish moss. That’s stretching the truth, because a lichen isn’t a moss, and it’s been a couple of centuries since Spain had any claim over California. In Texas, Spanish moss is a differently incorrect common name: Tillandsia usneoides is an epiphyte, a plant that grows on another plant or object for physical support but not sustenance.

On November 30th I visited Monument Hill State Historic Site in La Grange, 75 miles southeast of my home in Austin, and thought I found Spanish moss in some of the trees there. After the original version of this post appeared, Bill Dodd said in a comment that he thought the pictures actually showed a lichen, Usnea trichodea. I now believe he was right. Click the excerpt below if you’d like to zoom in on the intricate texture of this lichen.


© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 4, 2016 at 5:07 AM

31 Responses

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  1. That is an amazing lichen! Or moss?! 🙂


    December 4, 2016 at 5:13 AM

    • Actually, in spite of its common name, this one is neither a moss nor, unlike yesterday’s subject, a lichen, but a flowering plant, even if its flowers aren’t conpicuous. Together, yesterday’s and today’s subjects provide an example of convergent evolution.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 4, 2016 at 6:52 AM

  2. I have never seen that lichen/moss in Oklahoma, but we do have mistletoe! I had never heard the term epiphyte before. I learn something new each time I come here!


    December 4, 2016 at 5:32 AM

    • Happy new knowledge; learning is such fun!

      As far as I know, Spanish moss—which isn’t a moss—doesn’t make it to Oklahoma. I say “as far as I know” because the USDA map at


      doesn’t show it for any county in Oklahoma. Unfortunately the USDA species distribution maps aren’t always accurate. To the point, the USDA map doesn’t show Spanish moss in Fayette County, but that’s where La Grange is, and today’s photograph provides the evidence that Spanish moss does indeed grow in that county. I’ve also seen Spanish moss in San Antonio, yet Bexar County isn’t marked on the USDA map.

      As for mistletoe, which unlike Spanish moss is parasitic, we have it in Austin as well. I was also recently surprised to see plenty of it (though not the same species) in the deserts of California, Nevada, and Arizona.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 4, 2016 at 7:11 AM

  3. Hi, Steve.

    Looking at your pics of the Spanish moss, I’m wondering if you’ve actually captured a different lichen, Usnea trichodea. That’s the impression I get from the close-up photo, but I can’t quite see enough detail to be sure. I’ve mistaken that lichen for Tillandsia usneoides before.

    Interesting tidbit is that the specific epithet usneoides means “resembling (the lichen) Usnea“.

    Bill Dodd

    December 4, 2016 at 8:17 AM

    • Very interesting. I would have assumed Spanish moss, since I had no idea there were such lichens here in Texas. I found your photo on iNaturalist, and the closeups included with the entry were intriguing. I’m going to have to go pull down some Spanish moss and do a comparison.


      December 4, 2016 at 9:01 AM

      • And look how similar the members of three genera of beard lichens can be:


        Steve Schwartzman

        December 5, 2016 at 6:35 AM

        • Amazing. Given my untrained eye, I see those examples as nearly identical. And it seems their greenish color may not be a sure way to distinguish them from Spanish moss. When I went to this page that had a photo of greenish Spanish moss, I read that “the surface of the Spanish moss plant is covered with tiny gray scales, which trap water until the plant can absorb it. The plant’s tissues can hold more water than the plant needs, to keep it going through dry periods. When the tissues plump up after a rain, Spanish moss appears more green. As the water is used, it returns to a gray hue.”

          Since we’ve had days of rain, and I have a stand of moss-draped trees close by, it’s field observation time.


          December 5, 2016 at 7:17 AM

          • I’m a member in good standing of the Untrained Eye Club. Based on the page you linked to, I’d say the scales on Spanish moss are a feature to look for to differentiate between it and the beard lichens. After Bill Dodd’s comment, it occurred to me that the presence of flowers or seeds is another indicator of Spanish moss (the absence of flowers and seeds being inconclusive, however).

            Let us know your conclusions from checking the Spanish moss near you. The closest I know to me is about 10 trafficky miles away, and we’re on our fourth consecutive rainy day here, so I won’t be checking it out for some time.

            Steve Schwartzman

            December 5, 2016 at 7:39 AM

            • Speaking of differences in quite a different context, I finally saw why you consistently recommend Macs to people interested in photography. I took my iPad to a day-long meeting on Saturday. During the lunch break, I opened my blog to show my photos of Pond Creek to someone. The difference in image quality between my home monitor and the iPad was remarkable. There’s no question now that whenever I’m able to replace my laptop, I’m going with a Mac. I’d ask Santa to bring me one this year, but I dont’ think I’ve been quite good enough for that to happen.


              December 5, 2016 at 8:17 AM

              • I’m glad to see you got bitten (benevolently) by the Mac bug. If the iPad fills your need for portability, your next home computer could be an iMac, with its gorgeous monitor. Santa will be back around next year.

                Steve Schwartzman

                December 5, 2016 at 8:29 AM

            • This has been an interesting discussion. I’d forgotten, until I read this comment again today, that ball moss has flowers, too. I’ve seen the seed pods, but not the flowers. I need to watch for them this year.


              January 5, 2017 at 6:36 AM

              • Likewise with me: over all the years of seeing ball moss, I’ve never managed to catch sight of fresh flowers, only the later stages. Let 2017 be the year for both of us to remedy that.

                Steve Schwartzman

                January 5, 2017 at 8:20 AM

      • From a distance, these organisms can be hard to tell apart. The key is to get a good close-up view. As Steve noted, one of the things to look for to tell if you have a lichen vs. a Tillandsia is evidence of floral parts. And the tiny scales on the surface of Tillandsia would be another.

        For Usnea trichodea, a key feature is that the thallus has “bone-like articulations”. Think of the long bones in the arms/legs of mammals. In Lichens of North America, Brodo has a good drawing of key Usnea features, including the bone-like articulations in U. trichodea. It is seen in Fig. 37(e) on page 710. Here is a Google Books link that works for me to see this page and drawing. Hopefully, it will work for others as well:


        (If the link doesn’t work, try a web search using the exact phrase “Thallus features in Usnea”.)

        The bone-like articulations are not common to all Usnea species. And there are other lichen genera with a beard-like structure (as seen in the Flickr photo Steve linked to). So the work to ID a beard-like organism resembling Spanish moss may take a little time depending on where you are. Fortunately for those of us in central Texas, U. trichodea appears to be the only expected beard-like lichen.

        Bill Dodd

        December 5, 2016 at 10:14 AM

        • Thanks for the additional information. Your link worked for me.

          I’d have been able to check for bone-like articulation in La Grange if only I’d known about such a thing. From now on I’ll be on the lookout for Usnea, now that I know to expect it in central Texas. As I say so often: live and learn.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 5, 2016 at 11:07 AM

    • You may well be right. I’ve always admitted that biology is the weakest part of this blog, given my lack of background in the subject. I had no idea that Usnea trichodea even exists in central Texas. If I can find a source that explains how to tell it apart from Tillandsia usneoides, I’ll go have a look at some specimens whose location I know in Austin to see whether I’ve mistaken the lichen for the flowering plant on other occasions. I’m glad you commented about this.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 4, 2016 at 9:16 AM

      • About the species name usneoides: I’d thought about including its etymology in the post but in the end didn’t do it. The loss of w in Greek makes it hard now to see the kinship between -oides and Latin vid- (as in video) and English wit.

        Steve Schwartzman

        December 4, 2016 at 9:51 AM

  4. As I mentioned to Bill, if I’d not seen his comment, I would have called this Spanish moss, too. There was only one thing that caught my attention, and that was the color of the moss. It seemed particularly green to me, instead of the silvery-gray that I’ve always associated with Spanish moss. I thought the difference probably was attributable to the light, or perhaps to the time of year, but I still was surprised that the moss wasn’t about the color of the tree limbs. Whichever this hanging delight may be, I’ve learned a lot about lichens in Texas in the past half-hour!


    December 4, 2016 at 9:08 AM

    • We’ve both been enlightened by his comment. I had no idea that central Texas has a lichen that looks similar to Spanish moss. Now I’ll have to learn to tell the two apart. The pale greenishness you mentioned may turn out to be a useful distinguisher. Botany is not as simple as photography, alas.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 4, 2016 at 9:55 AM

  5. Lichen or moss or not, it looks like something I wouldn’t like to run into. I fear I would never get it out of my hair.


    December 5, 2016 at 5:06 AM

    • Not to worry: these strands are normally high enough in the trees that you couldn’t run into them. While the lace lichens we saw in the forests of California seem to have a propensity for dropping small tangles onto the ground, I think it unlikely someone would be standing underneath at the time.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 5, 2016 at 5:31 AM

      • Phew.


        December 5, 2016 at 5:47 AM

        • On an unrelated matter: I saw on television a few hours ago that your prime minister has resigned.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 5, 2016 at 11:08 AM

          • I am not a supporter of his political party but I am feeling quite sad that he has stepped down. He’s an okay guy. And it’s admirable that he has decided it is time for him to give up politics and let someone else take over. The question for us is who ~ the choices aren’t great.


            December 6, 2016 at 3:02 AM

  6. […] subjects of two recent successive posts—one from California and one from Texas—were epiphytes, organisms that grow on animate or inanimate objects for physical support but not […]

  7. […] In a post last December I showed what I initially thought was Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides, at Monument Hill State Historic Site in La Grange, Texas. Bill Dodd added a comment in which he said he thought I’d actually photographed a so-called beard lichen, Usnea trichodea. On January 3rd of this year, on my first photo outing for 2017, I drove back to the site in La Grange and confirmed that Bill was right about my having photographed a lichen and not an epiphytic vascular plant. I invite you to check out the updated version of December’s post. […]

    • Thanks for the update, Steve. Glad to hear you made a return trip to confirm the beard lichen ID. It’s a very cool lichen and pretty uncommon in our area as best as I can tell. Though as more folks learn to recognize it, we may find it is a bit more common than once thought.

      Bill Dodd

      January 5, 2017 at 8:32 AM

      • You opened my eyes to the presence of beard lichens in Texas. I’ll certainly be looking for some closer to Austin than La Grange.

        Steve Schwartzman

        January 5, 2017 at 9:11 AM

  8. Good catch Bill–I would never have imagined this was a lichen!

    Jeri Porter

    January 5, 2017 at 7:52 AM

  9. […] a month before I came upon this beard lichen in New Zealand, I photographed a species of Usnea an hour east of […]

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