“Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” ~ Coco Chanel
Accessories. I like the whole idea of them. Bracelets, earrings, hats, snazzy shoes, purses. I have a sister who has a scarf for every occasion, and another sister with equally significant sunglass options from which to choose for any given moment. But my fascination with accessories stops at admiration. I do collect tiny stud earrings (usually horticultural in nature) made in whatever place I travel, but I rarely change from the tiny leaves that adorn my earlobes daily. Though I lean to the austere, I admire those who manage to put together combinations of clothes and accessories that tell the world who they are. I admire people who wear their personalities, regardless of what the world thinks. Folks who own whatever runway the world throws at them that day.
On a recent visit to the southeast, the Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) caught my attention. Though they were immense and old, stately and sinuous, it was not those features that captured my attention. It was their accessories.
Oaks can’t take Coco Chanel’s advice. They aren’t choosing what to wear and they certainly can’t take something off. Accessories are just flung upon them and they have no choice but to wear their baubles with dignity and grace. Welcome to the Horticultural fashion show, in this case we walk the runway past the models, instead of the models sashaying past us.
Introducing Live Oak. Today, and many days, Live Oak is wearing a stunning collection of Spanish Moss. The silvery gray epiphyte dangles from every branch, shimmering in the southern sun enjoying the warm weather. Individually these small plants don’t look like much, but en masse they create quite a show.
What are these exactly? And just how do they get to the branches of Live Oaks and other southern trees?
As you may have heard already, Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is not actually a moss and is native to the Southeastern US as well as portions of Central and South America. Spanish Moss is a Bromeliad, related to pineapples. In fact, though few people notice, these small silvery threads will bloom yellow-green in April (in Florida) and have a pleasant fragrance. These flowers produce the wind-borne seeds that will eventually settle in cracks and crevices of the bark. Spanish Moss gets its nutrients by collecting moisture from the air with fine hairs all along the leaves and gathering minerals from the surface of the tree. Sometimes, as Coco Chanel suggests, it would behoove the Live Oaks and the Bald Cypresses, who also are seen displaying this look quite frequently, to remove some of the moss should it prevent light from getting to their leaves or increase wind resistance, which in hurricane country is not a good look.
Live Oaks don’t stop with just one embellishment. They often can be found wearing the most seasonal of accessories, Resurrection Ferns (Pleopeltis polypodioides). This look changes with the weather. Crispy and brown in dry weather and emerald green and lush when it rains, this is a plant for all seasons. Another epiphyte, look for these in shady areas of large horizontal oak limbs. This fern is said to be able to live 100 years dried up and revive 24 hours after a rain. That’s an accessory that’s always in season!
Not shy of color, Live Oaks can be found displaying more than silver and green. Keep a close eye out for Cryptothecia rubrocincta. This is sometimes called the Christmas Wreath Lichen, though I had no idea what type of lichen it was when I first saw it. Its colors reminded me of a radish slice, so I started calling it Radish Lichen. (That’s the nice thing about common names, you can call a plant whatever you want!) Whatever you decide to call it, it is a bright standout in a green lush forest. Equally fashionable is the fact that the red pigment in this lichen acts as a sunscreen for this organism, very important in the southeastern climes where it thrives.
Bald Cypress isn’t afraid to be caught wearing the same style as Live Oak. Look at how the Spanish Moss drapes from this knobby-kneed native tree.
Not to be outdone, Laurel Oak (Quercus laurifolia), chooses a ‘less is more’ approach sticking with one type of bold accessory. Notice the large green accents of color on the gray branches. This is American or Oak Mistletoe (Phorandendron serotinum). Different from the benign epiphyte that only uses its host plant for support, the Mistletoe is semi-parasitic, tapping into the tree, taking nutrients while making its own. Just like any accessory, too much can overwhelm. Mistletoe can stress and weaken trees and even kill trees that are already under stress. The sticky seeds of these plants accessorize birds who wipe their beaks and tails on trees to get them off, spreading the plant from tree to tree.
That’s what’s in fashion on the southeastern trees this season! What do you see the trees wearing in your area?