Spanish moss is neither Spanish nor a true moss. It belongs to Bromeliaceae, the pineapple family. The gray fibrous plant drapes trees from Virginia to Texas and along the gulf coast. People tend to see the moss hang from dead trees and think the moss killed the tree, but it only uses trees for support, according to Louisiana State University (LSU) Ag Center. Spanish moss does not invade the host tree as other parasitic plants. Spanish moss is an epiphyte--an air plant--which means it does not need soil or roots.
American Indians stuffed fresh moss into canoes to prevent the wood from drying and cracking. The Houma and Seminole tribes wove filaments of moss into cloth and rope or boiled pieces to brew a medicinal tea. They wrapped dried moss around arrowheads and lit them to make fire arrows. The moss was also used in cooking and pottery making. Early European colonists used Spanish moss as animal fodder, kindling and mixed it with mud to fill gaps in their cabins.
The Spanish moss industry achieved economic importance during the early part of the 20th century. The LSU Ag Center explains that harvesters gathered moss from trees with long poles. Growers soaked the moss, then stored it in pits or hung it on wires for several months until the outer scales sloughed off. The cured moss was sorted, cleaned and bailed for commercial ginning. Manufacturers used the moss to stuff mattresses and automobile seats.
Today, gardeners add Spanish moss to plants as mulch or drape it across fences to form a garden screen. Some people use moss to fill potholes in private driveways. Commercial producers grow and market the plant to other industries. The floral industry places Spanish moss around the base of plants to retain moisture in floral arrangements. The retail industry sells dried moss for arts and crafts and for packaging material.
Various forms of wildlife use Spanish moss as a habitat. Birds use the long strands of moss to make nests. Baltimore orioles and yellow throated warblers prefer to set up house in the clumps. Spanish moss provides habitat to chiggers, mosquitoes and at least one species of spider. The insects draw red bats and pipistrelles, which rest in the clumps of moss during the day, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Science Extension. Spanish moss serves as a refuge for amphibians and reptiles as well.
Spanish moss survives because it has cup-shaped scales that catch moisture, dust and mineral nutrients from the air. The plant's ability to trap air particles makes it highly susceptible to air pollution. For this reason, the United States Geological Survey collected samples of Spanish moss from South Carolina highways to test for contaminants. The samples revealed high concentrations of lead from exhaust fumes and copper, sodium, nickel and manganese.