Ball Moss is a Fascinating Native Plant
Ro Wauer, February 2, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003
To most people, ball moss is little more than a blight on our landscape, something that must be eliminated in order to preserve our native vegetation. Although ball moss can threaten many of our trees, it often is only a minor problem and adds much to our natural arboreal environment.
Ball moss is most common on our live oak trees that usually grow in mottes or heavy stands. It is there, among the lower, heavily shaded branches, where ball moss finds the most appropriate environment. There is where there is low light intensity and high humidity, exactly what it likes best. Over time, colonies of ball moss can become so widespread in these places that it can kill its host branches.
In spite of its bad reputation, ball moss is truly a fascinating plant. Known to scientists as Tillandsia recurvata, it is an epiphyte of the family Bromeliaceae. It is not a moss, but a true plant with flowers and seeds. Other family members include pineapple, Spanish moss, and false agave, a plant that grows on limestone slopes in the Big Bend County. And in the Tropics, within 150 miles south of the Mexican border, there are dozens of bromeliads growing on trees as well as on the ground. Many of these tropical bromeliads grow in huge clusters and produce wonderful, brilliantly colored flowers. Many of those bromeliads provide communities for an amazing diversity of wildlife, from nectaring hummingbirds and insects to roosting and nesting sites for birds, reptiles, and small mammals.
Our epiphytes - ball moss and Spanish moss - are far less important to wildlife than the large tropical bromeliads. But they, nevertheless, do provide food and shelter for a few species of wildlife, such as various invertebrates and birds. In the United States, several bird species utilize our northern epiphytes during the nesting season. Tropical parula (warbler), found in deep South Texas, often builds it nest on ball moss. And the northern parula, a close cousin that nests in our general area, often builds its nest in Spanish moss. Several other bird species either lines their nest with Spanish moss fibers or builds the fibers into the nest during construction.
Epiphytes are plants that attach themselves to various trees and shrubs as well as fences, utility lines, and a wide assortment of other objects that might be handy. At first a falling seed, that is rather sticky to the touch, becomes coincidentally attached to a structure. But it then forms pseudo-roots that help it stay in place. These are not true roots that would absorb water and minerals. The resultant plant, therefore, is not a parasite, for it obtains all its nutrients from the air and falling debris.
Should ball moss be controlled? It depends upon the extent. Light infestations seldom cause a problem, but growing colonies can pose a long-term risk to your trees. A recent bulletin from the Texas Forest Service suggests three methods of control: picking, pruning or spraying. (1) Picking, a method that can be very effecting but extremely tedious and labor intensive, involves physically pulling each plant off the tree. (2) Pruning "consists of cutting and removing the dead, interior limbs from the tree and/or lightly thinning the canopy." Infestations decline once sunlight is able to reach the interior section.
(3) Spraying involves the use of an effective foliar spray. They recommend either "Kocide 101 or baking soda (1.2 pound of baking soda per 1 gallon of water + surfactant)." They also point out that "higher concentrations of chemical can actually damage the tree." And they recommend pruning out the deadwood as step one in the process.
Whether ball moss is a problem or not, it is a natural part of our environment. And this is the time if year when ball moss seeds begin to fly. Learn to live with it!