Even if you don't live in the south chances are you've been a bit curious about Spanish moss, that ubiquitous fixture of southern landscapes, like a thousand trailing gray beards through which lace curtain light filters the heavy humid air. It's the gauzy, dreamy stuff of stories gone southern Gothic.
While it loves live oaks with their ambling lateral branches it seems to attach itself to anything not moving, you'll see it hanging in just about any tree or shrub.
But on a practical note, is it a parasite? Does it kill trees?
In a word, no.
Neither moss or lichen, Spanish moss is an epiphyte, or air plant, a member of the bromeliad family and a cousin of, off all things, the pineapple. Although it attaches itself to trees, it absorbs nutrients and water from the air. It can grow so abundantly that it shades out a tree's foliage and decreases growth, however it won't kill the tree.
In the old days Spanish moss was used for stuffing mattresses and car seats, before that it was woven into clothing. Nowadays you'll see it used in floral arrangements, craft items and oddly enough in reptile cages for bedding.
No matter, I love how it performs a little visual alchemy romancing even the most ordinary street. I love the jarring effect of its grizzled gray scarves draped from autumn leaves or better yet the waxy blooms of the tulip poplar tree.
You can order live Spanish moss to grow your own. The websites profess that all it takes is regular misting with water, even claiming you can grow it outside its southern range. Whether this is the case, I guess the question is, would you really want to?