Moss balls on trees

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What is ball moss?

Ball moss is a small epiphyte commonly found clinging to limbs of live oaks and other trees in southwest Texas. Ball moss is not a moss, but a true plant with flowers and seeds. It is a member of the bromeliad family, which also contains Spanish moss and pineapple. Epiphytes are plants that attach themselves to limbs, tree trunks, power lines, fences, and many other structures with pseudo-roots. Unlike true roots, they do not absorb water and minerals; they merely attach the plant to an aerial structure. Since epiphytes do not take nutrients and water from these aerial structures, they are not parasites; therefore, ball moss is not a parasite.

Tillandsia recurvata

Family: Bromeliaceae

(bro-mee-lee-AY-see-ee)
Genus: Tillandsia (til-LAND-see-uh)
Species: recurvata (rek-er-VAY-tuh)

Is it killing my tree?

If ball moss is not a parasite, then why does it seem that those branches covered with it are dieing?There is a lot of controversy about this. If you take careful notice, you will observe the majority of these dead limbs are in the interior of the tree’s canopy. Ball moss prefers an environment with low sunlight intensity and higher humidity. The interior canopy of trees (especially live oaks) provides an ideal environment for ball moss. These interior limbs die from a lack of sunlight, rather than from the ball moss plants colonizing these branches. If the tree is heavily covered with ball moss to the extent that the plants are covering the exterior of the canopy, then control is recommended. If it is a light to moderate infestation, control is not necessary for the health of the tree.

How do I control ball moss?

First of all, it is important to note if the other trees in the area are also colonized by ball moss. A tree that has been picked free of the plant can be quickly re-colonized if the neighboring trees are infested. Because of this, thoroughly controlling ball moss may require neighborly or community cooperative effort.

Ball moss can be controlled using three methods: picking, pruning or spraying. Each method alone may not provide adequate control. Using a combination of all three methods may result in the most thorough treatment.

Picking involves physically pulling each plant off the tree. This method can be very effective, but is extremely tedious and labor intensive. It can also be quite dangerous without the use of proper equipment. Please use caution and practice proper safety techniques if employing this method.

Pruning consists of removing the dead, interior limbs from the tree and/or lightly thinning the canopy. The majority of the ball moss is growing on the dead, interior limbs; therefore, by removing these limbs, you physically remove the majority of the ball moss. As mentioned above, ball moss prefers areas with low sunlight intensity. Light thinning of the canopy (only if necessary) allows more sunlight to reach the interior of the tree, discouraging future infestation. When pruning, always be sure to follow proper pruning techniques so as to not damage the tree.

Spraying can involve either applying a simple baking soda mix or a specific chemical to the tree in a foliar spray. Kocide 101 has been shown to provide adequate control. Do not exceed the recommended rates for this chemical, since higher concentrations can actually damage the tree. The ball moss will shrivel up and die in 5 to 7 days, but will remain in the tree until the wind or rain knocks it out. For this reason, it is recommended to prune out the deadwood first. In doing so, you will most likely remove the majority of the ball moss from the tree and practice good tree maintenance at the same time. Neither picking, pruning nor spraying will remove all of the ball moss from the tree, but these treatments can certainly help to control it.

Article submitted by Jason Traweek, Conservation Program Coordinator, City of Austin Tree Division in the Development Services Department.

Ball Moss is Not So Bad

Before you banish the ball moss from your trees, know this: it is not a parasite. Ball moss does not feed on your trees, but only uses them for structural support.

‘Tis the season for stories — many filled with joy, humor and maybe a little “extra” for “flavor.” Stories of ball moss are like that. Entertaining but suspect. Here is the truth about ball moss.

Tillandsia recurvata is a small, non-descript plant commonly found in Southwest Texas. Ironically, although this plant benefits the environment by “fixing” atmospheric nitrogen, much like alfalfa and clover, it is despised and eagerly eradicated. Most of us know this plant of ill repute as ball moss.

Ball moss is not a moss, but a true plant with flowers and seeds. A member of the Bromeliad family, which includes the pineapple, ball moss is an epiphyte.

Epiphytes attach themselves to limbs, tree trunks, power lines, picket fences and many other structures with their pseudo-roots. These are not true roots because they do not absorb water and minerals; they merely attach the plant to an aerial structure for support. Therefore, since epiphytes do not pilfer nutrients and water from their host, they are not parasites.

Because ball moss survives by absorbing water and nutrients from the surrounding atmosphere through its leaves and stem, it prefers sites that have little air movement and high relative humidity. The growth habit and thick canopy of the live oak provides an ideal habitat.

Ball moss on live oak.

Live oaks develop a type of canopy which is often described as a “monolayer,” that is, very thick on the exterior but quite open in the interior. This results in a low light, high humidity situation ideally suited for ball moss. As a result, ball moss is most often found on the dead interior branches of old live oaks. However, it is erroneous to believe that ball moss kills these interior branches. These branches die for the very same reason that the ball moss prefers the interior canopy — lack of sunlight. Likewise, branches which seem to be “smothered” by ball moss would inevitably die as a result of changing light intensity and tree physiology.

For those who simply cannot stand the thought of ball moss being benign or worse, of possessing potential benefits, the recommended method to reduce ball moss “infestation” is to prune all the deadwood and thin the canopy every five years. You can also spray with a fungicide, Kocide 101, for two consecutive springs.

While these practices will not remove all the ball moss, they will benefit the tree and make you feel better. Still, you can laugh when someone says ball moss kills trees. And laughter is always a good thing during the holidays.

Plant Database

Richardson, Charmaine

Tillandsia recurvata

Tillandsia recurvata (L.) L.

Synonym(s): Diaphoranthema recurvata, Renealmia recurvata

USDA Native Status: L48 (N), PR (N), VI (N)

Tillandsia recurvata has narrow leaves forming grayish ball-like clusters on branches of deciduous trees.

It is a member of the bromeliad or pineapple family (family Bromeliaceae). Bromeliads are epiphytic (rarely terrestrial) scurfy herbs, with generally stiff, long leaves and flowers, often in long clusters with conspicuously colored bracts. The family contains about 59 genera and more than 1,300 species, mostly natives of tropical America. Some have been introduced into other warm regions and cultivated for use as ornamentals or for their edible fruit.

From the Image Gallery

Plant Characteristics

Duration: Perennial
Habit: Herb
Flower:
Fruit:

Bloom Information

Bloom Color: Violet
Bloom Time: Jun , Jul , Aug

Distribution

USA: AZ , FL , GA , LA , NM , TX
Native Distribution: Florida and southern Georgia, south Texas, and southern Arizona, with a disjunct population in central Louisiana. South through Mexico and Central America to South America as far south as Argentina.

From the National Organizations Directory

According to the species list provided by Affiliate Organizations, this plant is on display at the following locations:
Brackenridge Field Laboratory – Austin, TX
Nueces River Authority – Uvalde, TX
Texas Master Naturalists – Lost Pines Chapter – Bastrop, TX
Jacob’s Well Natural Area – Wimberley, TX

Herbarium Specimen(s)

NPSOT 0310 Collected Mar. 7, 1993 in Comal County by Mary Beth White
NPSOT 1009 Collected Jan 10, 1995 in Bexar County by Mike Fox
NPSOT 0465 Collected Jun 29, 1987 in Bexar County by Harry Cliffe

Wildflower Center Seed Bank

LBJWC-MM-717 Collected 2010-01-27 in Hays County by Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

From the Archive

Wildflower Newsletter 1988 VOL. 5, NO.5 – Penny Campaign Grows Oklahoma Wildflowers, Wildflower Center Collects Honors, Di…

Additional resources

USDA: Find Tillandsia recurvata in USDA Plants
FNA: Find Tillandsia recurvata in the Flora of North America (if available)
Google: Search Google for Tillandsia recurvata

Metadata

Record Modified: 2018-06-28
Research By: TWC Staff

Go back

I get this question very often. People see the ball moss in the live oaks on the dead limbs and automatically think it is killing the branches and that it will eventually kill the tree if it is not removed. The truth is that ball moss is an epiphyte, or air feeder, and is not parasitic to the tree. Because it is growing inside the canopy in shady areas around here, it looks as though it is killing tree limbs, when in fact the limbs are dying naturally over time due to lack of sunlight penetration. Unfortunately, many less reputable and/or uneducated sales representatives for some local tree care companies often use the interior limb death as a fear factor and a sales tool to sell extensive ball moss removal for their companies.

However, the truth about ball moss with respect to tree health is not always completely cut and dry. I attended a seminar on ball moss about five years ago at Texas A&M by Dr. Todd Watson who is Urban Forest researcher at Texas Agricultural Experiment Station and an expert on mistletoe and ball moss (as well as a great guy). When the class full of professional, certified arborists were asked if ball moss is detrimental to plant health, half of the class raised their hands and the other half did not (I did not). This was very interesting. The reason for the split had to do with where specifically in Texas the arborists were practicing.

In humid areas of Texas, especially around lakes and bodies of water, ball moss infestations can be huge. In the Austin area, however, the air is dryer and even by water, the infestations are generally not as bad. In humid areas where ball moss is severe, it can actually grow over the ends of limbs in the full sun, causing the branches to actually be shaded out at the tips and killing sections of the outer canopy. In these instances, it needs to be pruned off or sprayed.

Here in Central Texas, the way I handle ball moss on live oaks is to prune it out of the trees. The air is generally quite dry here, and the infestations are rarely severe. Trees with larger amounts of dead wood that have formed since the last pruning cycle are more apt to have ball moss. As the canopies thicken back up since the last pruning cycle, the interior limbs die due to lower of sunlight penetration, and more ball moss forms on these limbs, and often on the interior living limbs as well, although generally not to the same extent.

It is important for long-term tree health to remove dead limbs from the interior of oak trees over time, especially large dead limbs. This then allows the trees to heal over and compartmentalize rot, helping to keep the living limbs healthy. As the dead wood is removed, so goes the ball moss. Since the trees generally do not form that much ball moss between pruning cycles, it is not an issue in most cases. Since spraying is costly, does not address the pruning needs of the tree, and is generally not necessary due to mild infestations, you will rarely see ball moss spraying as a preventive measure around here.

Ball Moss

Ball moss (Tillandsia recurvata) is a harmless epiphyte – a plant that grows on the surface of other things. Ball moss absorbs water and nitrogen from the atmosphere and is in no way parasitic.

When looked for, ball moss can be found growing on electric wires, screen doors, wooden fences, and numerous other places in the environment.

Ball moss prefers both shade and high moisture – both of which can be found beneath a tree. As trees grow, low limbs follow a normal pattern of mortality. As the shade increases, low limbs die providing the ball moss an ideal place to reside. Many folks will look at a dead or dying limb in the lower portion of a tree’s canopy and jump to conclusion that it was killed by ball moss. The lack of sunlight penetrating the canopy is the most likely reason for the limb to have died and becomes the preferred place for the ball moss to live.

Ball moss takes up to 3 years to mature. Once mature, it will bloom for the next 6 or 7 years. The flower of the ball moss is incredibly small with single purple petal. Once pollinated each flower can produce 70 to 100 seeds with as many as 50 to 60 flowers per mature clump of ball moss. While flowering occurs mostly during the spring, ball moss can be found flowering most any time of the growing season. The seeds dispersed by the dried flowers resemble those of the common dandelion. As small bits of white fluff, they are carried from tree to tree by the wind.

As wind blows over the top of a tree, a slight updraft is created beneath the tree. This aids the ball moss seed to move up into a tree. Ball moss is found most often on the bottoms of limbs partly because of the way the seeds are deposited.

Ball moss in no way indicates a tree’s overall health or general well-being. Instead, all it does is indicate the presence of more ball moss. Heavily infested trees are generally found near bodies of water where the ball moss can benefit from the higher relative humidity. Along streams, creeks, and lakes, (even small ponds), one finds a greater incidence of ball moss.

The fluffy seed of the ball moss adheres best to rough barked trees. While possible, it is less frequently seen on smooth barked trees such as crape myrtle or sycamore. In addition, trees that regularly shed large pieces of bark such as pecans seldom have large infestations of ball moss. Oaks, with their roughly textured and thick bark, provide a very good surface for the seed to adhere. Typically hanging onto dead limbs for 15 or 20 years or more, oaks make a good place for ball moss to live and proliferate.

Controlling ball moss isn’t easy. While it is possible to physically remove more than 95% of the moss from a single tree, removal of the seed left by the ball moss is impractical if not impossible. Ball moss on neighboring trees will release seed and re-infest the tree in a short period. Spraying is often touted as a cure but is not a very satisfying remedy. Three sprays are routinely used – a concentrate of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), potassium bicarbonate, and copper hydroxide (Kocide®). Each product is a chemical salt capable of killing the ball moss. The salts work by desiccation – drying out the ball moss – and therefore killing it. Ball moss starts as a minuscule plant until at maturity it weighs just a few grams. Most of its weight is water held within the plant. When desiccated, its weight can be reduced as much as 90%. Then the dead ball moss continues to hang in the tree for 8 to 10 years in oaks, less in other trees.

Pruning a tree correctly removing the dead and dying or broken limbs typically will remove 60 to 75% of the ball moss. Pruning – the physical removal of the ball moss – is the best way to significantly reduce the problem. Regular pruning that includes the removal of dead or dying branches significantly reduces the amount of ball moss.

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Is Ball Moss Bad For Pecans – How To Kill Pecan Ball Moss

Pecan ball moss control isn’t easy, and even if you manage to remove most ball moss in pecan trees, it’s nearly impossible to remove all the seeds. So, the burning question is, what can you do about ball moss in pecan trees? Read on to learn more.

What is Ball Moss?

Ball moss is an epiphytic plant that commonly grows in the interior limbs of trees where conditions are moist and shady. You may also notice ball moss on fence posts, rocks, power lines and other non-living hosts. Is ball moss bad for pecans? Opinions in the horticultural community are mixed. Many experts think ball moss in pecan trees is harmless because the plant isn’t a parasite – it takes nutrients from the air, not the tree.

The thinking in this camp is that when branches fall, it’s because they’re already dead or damaged due to a variety of reasons. Others think that sparse growth of ball moss in pecan trees is no problem, but a severe infestation can weaken the tree by blocking sunlight and preventing development of leaves.

How to Kill Pecan Ball Moss

You can remove ball moss in pecan trees the old-fashioned way – just blast the pesky plants with a strong stream of water or pick them off the tree with a long-handled rake or a stick with a hook on the end. Any dead branches should be removed.

If the infestation is severe and hand-removal is too difficult, you can spray the tree with fungicide in early spring. (Keep in mind that the balls may not fall off the tree until it rains.) Repeat the process the following spring to eliminate ball moss that was missed.

Some gardeners find that a baking-soda spray is effective on pecan trees with ball moss. The spray works by drying out the moss, which consists mostly of water.

Note: Before you declare war on ball moss in pecan trees, keep in mind that the moss is an important habitat for beneficial insects, and serves as an important source of nutrition for many songbirds.

Q: We have a beautiful 12-year-old chaste tree that has been covered with moss the past two years. Will this moss eventually kill the tree? And if so, what should/can we do?

Kathy Bergman, Houston

A: It sounds like ball moss, an epiphytic bromeliad (Tillandsia recurvata) that gets moisture and nutrients from the air. Ball moss is not a true moss or a parasite, so it does not kill trees; rather, it uses the branches for support. You also may see ball moss on nonliving structures, including utility lines.

Typically, small to moderate populations of ball moss are not harmful to a healthy, growing tree. The best defense is to keep your chaste tree (vitex) healthy with sun, good drainage and an organically enriched soil. Apply an organic fertilizer to encourage new growth.

However, gardeners may want to treat a heavy infestation in a weakened tree. When the small gray-green ball moss tufts become extremely dense, they may indirectly stress the tree by shading developing buds or restricting the area for new growth.

You can remove a good amount of the moss when you remove branches/stems to shape the plant in winter. If you wish, you can remove any heavily encrusted branches now.

Ball moss attaches to limbs with pseudo roots or holdfasts, and some gardeners carefully scrape and pick out the moss. Since this can be tedious with heavier infestations, others prefer to spray with a copper hydroxide product from late winter to spring according to label directions.

A late-winter/spring application of baking soda can be an effective control. Apply at approximately 1/2 pound per gallon of water. Make sure to saturate the moss.

The moss should die within weeks after spraying. It will turn dark gray and remain attached to the tree. The holdfasts will eventually decay. Fertilize and deeply water trees after treating.

Q: When we moved into our home 14 years ago, the existing azaleas looked rather sparse. Over the years, I have pruned and fertilized and mulched them back to vibrancy.

Several weeks ago, I was dismayed to notice that one plant appears to be dying limb by limb. The leaves turn from healthy green to light brown to a darker brown, and then the stem is clearly dried and dead.

Would you have any idea what this could be?

Christina Propst, Houston

A: Dieback and root rot are two of the more common azalea diseases that cause similar symptoms.

Dieback is a fungal disease (phomopsis) usually triggered by stress such as drought, too much water, freezing temps and pruning damage. Typically, a single branch or two on an otherwise healthy looking shrub will be affected. The disease causes foliage to wilt and die, and twigs and branches to die. If you scrape the bark on the infected branch, you’ll likely see brown streaks.

To combat dieback, remove affected branches and discard. Clean your clippers with diluted bleach between cuts. With care, your plant may continue to live. If it doesn’t, dig up the shrub and a good amount of surrounding soil.

Root rot is a fungal disease (phytopthera) usually triggered by poor drainage. With this fungus, you may see brown margins, wilting, discolored leaves and dead leaves. Branches may die.

To discourage this disease, remove affected branches and ensure good drainage and improve oxygen flow in the soil. Rake back any heavy mulch, and make holes in the soil around the shrub to help oxygen get to the root system. Spread horticultural cornmeal around the shrub to help control the disease.

Again, if the shrub does not survive, remove and replenish the soil in that area.

The best defense against these diseases is to avoid plant stress and provide nutrients by growing the shrubs in morning or filtered sun and a compost-enriched, slightly acidic and moist but well-draining soil. Good drainage is essential in our flood-prone area. Mulch the shallow root zones to discourage weeds and conserve soil moisture during dry spells. Avoid injuring the plant with mowers and trimmers, as wounds are open doors to diseases, especially on more susceptible older plants.

What Is Ball Moss: Tips For Getting Rid Of Ball Moss

If you have a tree that is covered in Spanish moss or ball moss, you might be wondering if it can kill your tree. Not a bad question, but to answer it, you first need to know what ball moss is before determining whether ball moss is bad or not.

Ball moss is gray-green and commonly found on tree branches and telephone wires. It grows in small clumps about 6-10 inches (15-25 cm.) across. The tiny seeds are blown on the wind until they land on a tree branch or other suitable area. They stick to the area and develop pseudo-roots that attach to the bark of the tree.

Additional Ball Moss Information

Ball moss is often mistaken for Spanish moss. While it is not Spanish moss, both are epiphytes. Epiphytes are plants that attach themselves to trees, power lines, fences and other structures with pseudo-roots. Unlike other plants, epiphytes do not absorb water and minerals but rather have the ability to uptake nitrogen in air and convert it into a form that the plant can use nutritionally.

Epiphytes are true plants that bear flowers and seeds and are members of the Bromeliad family along with not only Spanish moss but pineapple as well.

Is Ball Moss Bad?

Since the moss is not taking anything from the tree, it is not a parasite. Ball

moss may, indeed, be found on less than healthy trees more often than not, but that is simply because a sick tree may have less dense foliage, and the less foliage, the more obvious ball moss will become. So really, it is just a matter of convenience that ball moss favors growth on sick trees.

The trees aren’t sick because of the ball moss. In fact, when ball moss dies, it drops to the ground and decomposes, actually providing fertilizer for plants surrounding the tree. While ball moss isn’t bad for the tree, is can look unsightly. Getting rid of ball moss is no walk in the park though. Read on to learn about ball moss control.

Getting Rid of Ball Moss

Since we ascertained that ball moss isn’t a parasite and isn’t causing the tree to be sick in any way, there usually isn’t a reason to get rid of ball moss. That said, if the tree is heavily covered and it’s bothering you, ball moss control may be for you.

Ball moss control can be established using three methods: picking, pruning or spraying. Sometimes, a combination of these methods is the best way to control ball moss.

  • Picking is exactly what it sounds like, physically removing ball moss from the tree. It’s a labor intensive, rather tedious process and it can be dangerous because you may need to get pretty high up to remove the moss.
  • Pruning entails cutting and removing dead interior limbs from the tree and/or judiciously thinning the canopy. Usually, most moss is growing on the dead, interior limbs, so removing them removes the majority of the ball moss. Thinning opens the canopy to more light; ball moss prefers low light so it discourages further growth of moss. Ball moss is common on oaks, but when pruning oaks, be sure to paint all pruning cuts to reduce the risk of oak wilt.
  • Spraying is a last resort. It involves the application of a foliar chemical spray. Kocide 101 provides sufficient control. Apply at the recommended rate according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Within 5-7 days from application, the ball moss will shrivel up and die. It will remain in the tree, however, until the wind is sufficient enough to knock it out. Because of this, it is recommended to prune the dead wood first and then apply the foliar spray. That way the majority of the ball moss will be removed and you will be maintaining the tree at the same time.

Remember that often it will take a combination of the three methods to remove the ball moss in its entirety.

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