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Misunderstood Moss

While ball moss does live on oak trees, it doesn't kill them.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Poor, misunderstood ball moss (Tillandsia recurvata). More often than not, this spiky plant gets unfairly blamed for smothering live oaks and other trees across the state's southern half.

It's not even a true moss, which reproduce by releasing spores. Classified as a bromeliad, ball moss bears bluish flowers on long stems. Wind-blown seeds float in the air, stick to tree bark, fences or utility wires, and then germinate. Wiry roots called "hold fasts" attach firmly to a host but do not leech nutrients. Rather, ball moss absorbs minerals and moisture from the air through scales (trichomes) on their leaves.

Tillandsia recurvata prefers low light and high humidity, a habitat typically found within tree canopies. Thus, masses of ball moss often congregate on dead interior branches of live oaks and get blamed for their demise. Actually, the limbs decline for the same reason ball moss thrives: lack of sunlight.

Though despised by many, this common "air plant" actually bears some ecological importance in nature. Spiders as well as many insects hide in ball moss. In the Hill Country last April, birders on an excursion with Field Guides, Inc., at Dolan Falls Preserve - located halfway between Del Rio and Sonora - spotted a yellow-throated vireo and a yellow-throated warbler, both nesting in ball moss clusters. What's even better: they observed a tropical parula - a songbird that's listed as threatened in Texas - on a nest built of the same material.

Now there's a good reason to love ball moss!

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