The Antioxidant Power of Spanish Moss

October 8, 2018 • 3 min read

Spanish Moss growth on oak and Cyprus trees creates a perfect environment for the cultivation of multiple types of fungi that mobilize nutrients.

Moss clinging to tree branches throughout much of the southeastern United States is the region’s trademark. Common in coastal subtropical environments, this plant sits high in oak and Cyprus trees, living off of the abundant moisture and nutrients extracted from the air.

Commonly known as Spanish Moss, Tillandsia usneoides is a unique plant with a long history of therapeutic potential. Locals traditionally used Spanish Moss to treat all sorts of ailments, either by brewing it into teas or stuffing it in shoes. Spanish moss picks up compounds – good and bad – from air particles, inadvertently becoming a representation of air quality for a particular region.

Investigations into the compounds found in Spanish Moss showed the plant to contain multiple phytochemicals [2]:

  • Carotenoids
  • Tocotrienols
  • Flavonoids
  • Alkaloids
  • Polycarpol
  • 3-hydroxy-methylglutaric acid (HMG)

The primary flavonoid identified – 6,3′,5′-trimethoxy-3,5,7-4′-tetrahydroxyflavone – is unique to Tillandsia usneoides [3].

In the literature

Animal studies of Spanish Moss extracts incorporated into rats’ diets showed lower blood glucose levels and inhibition of diabetes development. A detailed investigation identified HMG as the source of bioactivity in Spanish Moss; the phytochemical was found at an average concentration of 2.8mg per 100g of the raw plant [4].

During the 1970s and early 1980s, multiple clinical trials were launched that focused on HMG as a tool for blood lipid management and bolstering cardiovascular health. This is because HMG acts a competitive inhibitor of the enzyme HMG-CoA reductase, which helps control cholesterol production in the liver. Thus, interfering with HMG-CoA reductase slows down the cholesterol production process [5].

Initial human studies showed significantly reduced serum cholesterol after six weeks’ daily HMG supplementation. Participants in these studies were genetically predisposed to high cholesterol levels, and they experienced limited side effects [5]. Limiting HMG-CoA lyase activity provided additional effects on blood glucose management, thereby decreasing blood ketone bodies and forcing the brain to use more blood glucose for energy [4].

A Phenolic Effect on Wound Healing

Traditional uses of Spanish Moss also included treating open wounds. In animal studies, extracts of Spanish Moss reduced the amount of time for wound healing. Common skin bacteria such as S. aureus, S. epidermis, and P. aeruginosa pose problems because of their ability to cause infection in an open wound, ultimately slowing the healing process. Organic extracts of Spanish Moss produce growth limiting activity against each of these microbes [2].

Facilitating the Growth of Useful Microbes

Spanish Moss growth on oak and Cyprus trees creates a perfect environment for the cultivation of multiple types of fungi that mobilize nutrients from the plant, producing various bioactive compounds capable of exhibiting growth limiting effects on cancer cells [6].

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1. Isaac-Olive, K., et al., Tillandsia usneoides L, a biomonitor in the determination of Ce, La and Sm by neutron activation analysis in an industrial corridor in Central Mexico. Appl Radiat Isot, 2012. 70(4): p. 589-94.

2. M, F.E., et al., In Vitro Antibacterial Activity of Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) Crude Extract Against Skin Infection in Wound Healing. International Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemical Research, 2017. 9(10).

3. Williams, C.A., The systematic implications of the complexity of leaf flavonoids in the bromeliaceae. Phytochemistry, 1978. 17(4): p. 729-734.

4. Witherup, K.M., et al., Identification of 3-Hydroxy-3-methylglutaric Acid (HMG) as a Hypoglycemic Principle of Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides). Journal of Natural Products, 1995. 58(8): p. 1285-1290.

5. LUPIEN, P.-J., et al., Effects of 3-Hydroxy-3-methylglutaric Acid on Plasma and Low-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol Levels in Familial Hypercholesterolemia. The Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 1979. 19(2‐3): p. 120-126.

6. Xu, Y.M., et al., Cytotoxic Cytochalasins and Other Metabolites from Xylariaceae sp. FL0390, a Fungal Endophyte of Spanish Moss. Nat Prod Commun, 2015. 10(10): p. 1655-8.

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