Spanish moss, also known by its scientific name Tillandsia usneoides, is not a member of the moss family, or even native to Spain, but rather belongs to the Bromeliacae family -- along with plants like the pineapple. Spanish moss has figured largely for generations in North and South American folk medicine traditions as a treatment for a wide variety of medical problems; several of these problems --particularly diabetes and skin conditions -- are believed by many alternative medicine practitioners to be effectively treated by Spanish moss. However, these claims have not been backed by scientific evidence, and Spanish moss use is not advocated by the Food and Drug Administration.
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Spanish moss is an epiphyte, a plant that gains its nutrients not from soil or from a host plant or tree, but directly from the air. It is also known by the common names graybeard, old man's beard, grandfather's whiskers and Florida moss. According to the Beaufort County Library website, Spanish moss grows on supports like trees, fences, buildings or poles and thrives primarily from the southeastern region of the United States to the upper portion of South America.
The USDA National Resources Conservation Service reports that Spanish moss was used by Native Americans as a fiber to create blankets and ropes, as stuffing for bedding and as an ingredient in the clay-based plaster used cover the inner walls of houses. Spanish moss was boiled, brewed into a tea and administered as a treatment for fevers and chills by the Hourma and Natchez tribes, two Native American groups from Louisiana. Native groups throughout South America used Spanish moss teas for treating contraction pains in women giving birth and to ease rheumatism.
The Beaufort County Library website reports that the ability of extracts of Spanish moss to alter blood glucose levels was studied by researchers in 1998 at the Northeast Louisiana University. This study and several others, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center located at the University of Texas at Austin, have found that Spanish moss contains a compound that may help control blood glucose levels. The compound, 3-hydroxy-methylglutaric acid or HMG, is used as a major ingredient in several natural diabetic supplements.
The Medical News Today website reports that Japanese cosmetics researchers from the Noevir Company believe that certain extracts from Spanish moss appear to strengthen the small blood vessels, or capillaries, in skin as well as protect them from damage. In addition, the researchers reported that their studies indicated the Spanish moss extract inhibited the breakdown of skin cells. Together, these results have led many to believe that Spanish moss contains compounds that can prevent the effects of aging on skin.
As an alternative medicine ingredient, Spanish moss use has not been approved for any specific medical treatment by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA strongly encourages all potential users of any non-approved substance to consult their physicians and discontinue use if they experience any symptoms resembling an allergic reaction, including difficulty breathing, unexplained swelling or skin rashes and hives.