Photos | Judy Stout

From left: Passion flower and Night-blooming cereus.

We began last time by exposing the wide range of plant adaptations around us in our gardens and landscape. Let’s continue our fascinating facts about a few more familiar but odd plants you may encounter.

Spanish moss is neither a moss nor a parasite as many believe. Spanish moss is a flowering plant related to pineapples, air plants and our favorite bromeliad house plants. It contains chlorophyll for photosynthesis, but the color is masked by tiny grey scales covering its surface. Gently scratch off the scales, and the green becomes more obvious. 

Since it can make its own food, it only uses favorite trees such as oaks and bald cypress as something to hold onto with the tiny curved tips of each branch (epiphytic growth). In the early spring, pale green flowers about the size of a fingernail will produce seeds in small brownish cigar-shaped pods. Seeds are then released and spread by the wind. Flowers and pods are difficult to detect and require very close examination.

You may have noticed over time that this plant, once a spectacular presence along Mobile’s oak-lined streets, seems to have grown scarce. Spanish moss is very susceptible to air pollution, especially carbon monoxide released in car exhaust.

The only harm Spanish moss may cause is its dense cascades of moss may block light from the tree leaves, and excessive water weight may be retained after heavy rains.

Unusual flowering habits unexpectedly catch our eyes. Suddenly, the large agave in your yard sends up a huge flowering stalk that sprouts flowers more than 20 feet above the ground. The century plant may live 10-30 years (not actually a hundred!) before it blooms, then that portion of the plant dies and a new plant emerges from the base. Guess what? This plant is in the same family as asparagus! Look at the young sprout if you get a chance, and you’ll see the similarity.

Another surprising flower is the night-blooming cereus, which comes in several varieties and colors. From the leaves, it sends out a sprout that elongates over several days, forms a large flower bud and by the next morning is a wilted, drooping old flower. The amazing and beautiful flowers open only at night, between 9 p.m. and midnight, and fade in the dawn. You need to set your alarm to observe this flower emerging, but it’s worth it!

The passion flower is not only spectacular but is rumored to have been named for its use in storytelling. Supposedly, priests doing early mission work in South America used the flower parts to teach the story of the crucifixion, or “passion,” of Christ to native populations — the frilly corolla as the crown of thorns, the five stamens as the five wounds, the three nails represented by the lobes of the stigma and the 10 sepals as the 10 apostles. Today we recognize leaves of local native species of this plant as the food source for the caterpillars of the Gulf fritillary butterfly.

There are many more fascinating plants you may talk about and get more information on when you call our Master Gardener Helpline (toll free), 1-877-252-GROW (4769).


What: Mobile Master Gardeners Lunch & Learn
When: Nov. 19, noon to 1 p.m.
Where: Jon Archer Ag Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Topic: Native American and Midwife Gardens at the Mobile Medical Museum
Speakers: Daryn Glassbrook, Ph.D., and Carol Dorsey

What: Mobile Master Gardener Greenery Sale and MBG Holiday Market
When: Nov. 30 through Dec. 1 (Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.)
Where: Mobile Botanical Gardens, 5151 Museum Drive, Mobile
Deadline for pre-order: Nov. 15; for order form, email or visit

What: Market on the Square (look for the Master Gardener tent for gardening info)
Find: Local produce, homemade bread, jams, preserved, honey, crafts, music
When: Saturdays through Nov. 17, 7:30 a.m. to noon
Where: Cathedral Square, 300 Conti St., Mobile

Master Gardener Helpline: 1-877-252-4769, or send your gardening questions to