Ball Moss in Texas Hill Country

May 02, 2019

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Photographer: Patti Weeks 
Summary Author: Patti Weeks 

Ball moss, Tillandsia recurvata, a member of the Bromeliad family, is a gray-green compact plant cluster of overlapping spiky leaves, ranging in size from golf ball to soccer ball. Ball moss is not a moss, but a seed-producing plant — specifically, an epiphyte, a plant that attaches itself with pseudo-roots to tree limbs, fences or even power lines. Slender stems radiating from the core, release seeds, which are carried by the wind for reproduction. Ball moss is indigenous to the warmer regions of the Americas and extends from the southern U.S. states to northern Chile and Argentina. The clusters can be seen, often in significant number, clinging to branches and trunks of southern oaks and other trees, much to the chagrin of many homeowners. However, contrary to common belief, ball moss is not a parasite and does not absorb water and nutrients from trees, but from the air and water through scales (trichomes) on its leaves.

Ball moss prefers shade and humidity and is often blamed for the death of interior tree limbs. Rather, the limbs die from lack of sunshine, and the ball moss proliferates as it colonizes these branches. In some extremely humid areas near bodies of water, trees may become infested with ball moss, and the shaded outer limbs may die from lack of sunlight. On a positive note, ball moss can offer hiding places for insects and spiders and provide nest material for some songbirds. Some people even use fallen clusters to create decorations.

On my recent trip to Austin, Texas and its neighboring western region, the Hill Country, I saw many clusters of ball moss, mostly on mature oak trees. I would describe the clusters I’ve seen as “fist-sized twisted spheres of many overlapping skinny finger-like spiky leaves — whiskered and looking confused on which way their leaves should grow!”

The top photo, taken March 18, 2019, in Austin, Texas, shows healthy new tree leaf growth, unhindered by the prominent ball moss, on branches of a towering live oak tree estimated to be at least 100 years old. (click here to see a photo of the tree.) The bottom photo, taken March 14, is a closer view of the ball moss on what appears to be a small dead tree in the Texas Hill Country. Both photos show the whiskers of the seed-producing stems.

Photo Details: Top - SONY DSC-HX400V camera; 21.47mm focal length; f/4; 1/500 second exposure; ISO 80. Bottom - SONY DSC-RX100M4 camera; 25.7 mm focal length; f/5.6; 1/500 second exposure; ISO 125.