Human Flower Project
Spanish Moss…You Don’t Say!
A Southern Belle changed the rules of radio and put seven wispy seconds between “live” and “broadcast.”
Tillandsia usneoides - Spanish moss— sways from oaks
on St. Simons Island, Georgia
Photo: Allen Bush
By Allen Bush
The thin, dangling, curly wisps of gray Spanish Moss draped over huge branches of multi-trunked live oaks (Quercus virginiana) are a stunning landscape feature of the southern U.S. coastal low country. But walking in the beautiful squares of Savannah, Georgia, last week and driving along roadways on Sea Island and Jekyll Island, I kept thinking of Kentucky radio reporter Fred Wiche. Few know that Spanish moss—neither a moss nor lichen, but an epiphytic bromeliad, relative of pineapple—changed radio protocol forever far inland, in my hometown of Louisville.
I got very confused on Wiche’s Saturday morning radio show in September 1994. I blame it on Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides). I was sitting four feet across the table from the beloved WHAS radio personality. We were talking about powdery mildew on phlox. The trouble was I was hearing him again through the ear piece on a small, radio walkman that he had handed me just before the show began. The annoying echo of my own response—seven seconds later – was driving me nuts. At the first break, I asked what was going on. Fred muttered something about Spanish moss. He said I was doing fine and he’d explain at the end of the program.
Fred broadcast the “Weekend Gardener” remotely each week from his back deck, overlooking the orchard, vegetables and flowers on his beautiful farm near Simpsonville, south of Louisville. Fred and I chatted on the air about durable perennials for the Ohio Valley and callers asked good questions. I never got adjusted to the weird echo. I was listening to the radio while he was tuned into the studio’s direct feed. He wasn’t bothered by the seven second delayed re-play.
Fred Wiche hosted a hugely popular gardening show on WHAS, Louisville, KY
Fred was a local farm and garden hero. After years as a respected political reporter on television and radio he discovered a love for the land. Eventually he took over the early morning radio farm report from the legendary Barney Arnold. Farmers awoke at day break each weekday to Arnold, and later Wiche, as they reported what barrows, gilts, burley tobacco, and bushels of corn and soybeans were selling for in Kentuckiana markets. WHAS was, and remains, a 50,000 watt clear-channel AM radio force throughout Kentucky and southern Indiana. Farm market matters were just the start of Fred’s love for practically anything that could be grown.
At show’s end, we walked around the beautiful country garden that Fred shared with his wife, Jenny, until his death from cancer in 1998. I could tell how hard the Wiches worked. Late in the growing season, many gardeners would have grown weary of weeding and care-taking. Many gardens will grow rough around the edges. The exuberance of spring loses a lot of luster by fall. The neat-as-a-pin garden spoke to a love and discipline the Wiche family shared for the farm. His daughter Jeneen, a well respected radio personality in her own right, and her husband, Andy Smart, now lovingly tend the place.
As we finished the gardening show, Fred told me his story about Spanish moss. He had gotten a live call on his program several years before, from someone who had called-in to ask about blossom end rot on her tomatoes. Fred answered that a dose of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) would cure the mineral deficiency. Did she have any other problems, he asked. “Yes,” she said in a slow drawl as thick as sorghum, “I’ve got some moss growing between my legs.” The radio show producers, sitting in the station’s studio over twenty miles away, turned apoplectic. Wiche, who insisted he didn’t hear the caller’s question - quite the way it was uttered - asked, “What kind of moss, Spanish moss?”
Spanish moss “insoles” are a ticklish folk remedy to lower blood pressure
Photo: Allen Bush
WHAS decided in short order that their garden show, once so innocent and naïve as a babe-in-the-woods, would have to be sanitized just like any blathering news talk program. The seven-second delay came to the “Weekend Gardener.” Fred apologized to me for the little radio walkman that had piped in the confusing delayed chatter. He said he didn’t have another station headset that would have allowed a live feed and prevented the echo. And he admitted that he never did solve the caller’s moss problem.
I met Monicke Jones of Brunswick, Georgia, last week. She told me about her mother and described her as a “wonderful gardener.” Mrs. Reba Jones grows a small patch of okra, sweet potatoes, collard greens and sweet corn in Brunswick. She also has a massive live oak dripping with Spanish moss. “Cars stop to take a look all the time,” the daughter proudly told me. “I put a little bit of Spanish moss in each shoe, and wear it for three days, to lower blood pressure,” she added. And with an assuring smile, Monicke said, “It works.”