Ball Moss in Bloom

This nondescript and messy little bundle of plant life is ball moss: Tillandsia recurvata. Not a true moss at all, this epiphytic member of the bromeliad family commonly clings to the limbs of trees, barbed wire fencing, and utility wires.

While its own wiry roots attach the plant to a host, they don’t draw nutrients from that host; the plant isn’t a parasite. Instead, it absorbs minerals and moisture from the air through scales on its leaves called trichomes: a characteristic of another epiphyte, Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides).

Not everyone loves ball moss, although spiders and other insects seem to enjoy taking up residence inside its tangled leaves. If the plant’s flowers were more obvious, they might get more respect, but most people never see the tiny blooms.

Ball moss in bloom

When I found this little ball of moss in the middle of a parking lot, I noticed its buds, and wondered what would happen if I brought it home and fussed over it a bit. I’d read that the plant enjoys high humidity, so I laid it in a pot next to a prickly pear cactus, and misted it when I thought about it. In about a week, some of the buds — from 3/8″ to 1/2″ long — had opened.

I was able to see the flowers without magnification, but only at close range. Even then they were difficult to discern, so it’s no wonder people looking at the plants from a distance never glimpse the flowers.

In a day or two, the petals began to droop, and a separation appeared as the seed head began to form.

As the seed head continued to dry, the split became more obvious.

Eventually, the seed pod opened and tiny seeds began to drop, ready to be dispersed by the wind. Those that find a congenial place to land, like crevices in tree bark, will begin developing roots almost immediately, and a new plant will form. Each flower can produce up to a hundred seeds, so it’s no wonder that, once established, ball moss becomes a recognizable part of the southern landscape.

Opened pod with dangling seeds

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

80 thoughts on “Ball Moss in Bloom

  1. Thanks for introducing me to a plant I had never heard of before. It proves that “untidy” is not always unattractive.

    1. Like Spanish moss, it’s very much a southern plant. Thanks to books, film, and photographers, the more “romantic” Spanish moss that hangs from live oaks is better known to people outside the region, but especially in Texas, ball moss is equally common, and often is considered an unsightly pest.

        1. And down here on the coast, there are areas where the Spanish moss-draped live oaks rival anything on the plantations farther east. There’s even Spanish moss only a mile or so from me, at the Dudney nature center.

            1. A little research revealed that the seed pods are similar to those of ball moss, as are the flowers, although Spanish moss flowers are green. The Wildflower Center says it blooms April-June, but other articles say it blooms for four months, into the fall. I’d love to see the flowers; they’re the prettiest green imaginable.

    1. I’ve seen the seed pods from time to time, but I’ve been looking for the flowers for at least a couple of years. I didn’t expect to find a ready-to-bloom bunch in the middle of a parking lot, but it certainly beat trying to find some still on a tree.

    1. Ooh horse apples! We have some down this way in Houston but not very common. They are more prolific in the DFW/NE Texas area and into the plains/mid-west.

    2. I have seen horse apples, although I learned to know them as Osage orange. There are several trees in my ‘neighborhood.’ I’ve found two trees at the Dudney nature center here in League City, and there are trees at both the Brazoria and San Bernard Wildlife refuges. I have a pile of photos of the fruits in fall from Osage County, Kansas, and my Kansas City cousin has trees in her back yard; they seem to be much more common farther north.

        1. I have to confess… when I was growing up in Iowa, ‘horse apples’ referred to the little apple-sized piles that the horses left in the barns and pastures: just as there were cow pies, there were horse apples.

          Another name for the tree is bois d’arc, usually pronounced BO-dark in east Texas. The wood of the tree was used by native Americans for bow-making, since it’s exceptionally supple and strong. In Palestine, there’s a Bois d’Arc Baptist Church — one of the last remnants of the unincorporated town of Bois d’Arc.

    1. Believe me, Tina — I put in a little effort to finally get those photos. I wasn’t about to give up, because I wasn’t sure I’d ever have a chance to see the flowers again. I’ve been surprised by how many insects live in both ball moss and Spanish moss. There’s nothing quite like realizing that the beautiful Spanish moss hanging in front of your face is filled with hundreds of leaf-footed bugs.

    1. I don’t mind that people hate it, for aesthetic reasons if nothing else, but I wish they’d quit thinking that it’s killing their oak trees (which you know it isn’t) and spraying it with herbicides (which they really shouldn’t). I know of a few places where the yard crews keep it under control by physical removal once a year or so. It requires some equipment and some skill to keep from breaking tree branches, but it works.

  2. What a beautiful tiny flower. I’m amazed anyone would notice it at all with that size.

    I was really pleased to see the various stages of the flower too.

    1. I certainly went for a long time without noticing the flowers. The seed pods are large enough to catch the eye, especially since they’re on fairly long stalks, but of course by the time the plant’s covered with seed pods, the flowers are long gone.

      I must say, tracking the plant’s stages was easy, with it hanging out in one of my potted plants. It’s still there, as a matter of fact, and parts of it are turning a nice green. I don’t know whether it’s actually growing, or if it’s just happy.

  3. This is another new one to me, Linda. Even when I lived in Texas, I never saw it — to my knowledge — and if I did, I’m sure I never enjoyed those tiny flowers. Kudos to you for experimenting and seeing for yourself (and ultimately, us!) its various life stages!

    1. According to the USDA maps, its territory stops a couple of counties south of Dallas. I was surprised to see that it’s not shown in Mississippi or Alabama, either; I would have expected it to be found all along the Gulf Coast, just like Spanish moss. It does show up again in Florida and Georgia. The distribution seems odd to me, but there it is.

      All that aside, I’m just glad I finally got to see and photograph the flower. There aren’t many photos of it online — not surprising!

  4. Very cool! Before I opened the post, the title had me wondering. I’ve never heard of this Tillandsia but I’m very familiar with Spanish moss, having spent spring vacations on the Georgia coast. I haven’t been there in years and I didn’t know about the flowers back then so I never looked for them. It’s great that you succeeded in getting the buds to open at home (I brought Spanish moss home from GA once to my NYC apartment and even in the shower, it was a no go – of course). It’s even better that you stuck with it and watched the seedhead form. So interesting. I love plant world oddities like this.

    1. I’ve found that the seedheads of Spanish moss are similar to those of ball moss, and that the flowers, are similarly shaped, and the prettiest green possible. I suspect I’m too late to find Spanish moss flowers this year, but I can’t imagine anything prettier than those fresh, almost lime-green flowers against the silvery moss. If I can’t find any this year, I’ll certainly look for them next spring.

      I have a lot of memories of Spanish moss from childhood, when I visited a great-aunt in the Baton Rouge area. And it’s everywhere in my area, although it doesn’t spread very far inland. It’s interesting that Spanish moss thrives along the entire Gulf coast, while ball moss isn’t shown in Mississippi and Alabama.

  5. Nice…I love all sorts of Tillandsia plants. They comprise some of my favorite plants to see in the glades and wilderness areas here in Florida. Have just been fascinated the evocative epiphytes. Love your captures of the little purple flowerlets. Is that a word?

    1. I know that botanists use ‘florets’ for small flowers that make up a large bloom — Queen Anne’s lace is an example — but I’m perfect happy with your ‘flowerlet.’ I know I’ve seen ‘spikelet’ used in reference to grasses, as well as ‘islet’ and ‘owlet,’ so I’d say your word’s perfectly acceptable, as well as being descriptive.

      I just did a search for images of Tillandsia species, and was astonished by the variety. I need to narrow the search later to plants that can be found in the U.S. There’s not much chance of my finding the beauties that live at 2,000 feet in Peru. No wonder they fascinate you — they’re yet another reason to make my way to Florida some day.

      1. For me the tillandsia plants have been a part of the primitive timelessness of the glades. Maybe because I first saw them there and don’t see them in civilized settings. You would enjoy Big Cypress Swamp. I live here and have only scratched the surface of places to explore.

        1. It wasn’t until I got to Louisiana that I came to understand that a “swamp” is quite different from the dark, dank, overgrown, and probably dangerous places portrayed in a certain kind of movie. A living swamp is a wonderful thing, and certainly enough for a lifetime of exploration. I hope you’re doing some of that exploring these days.

          1. I regret to say that I haven’t been out in way too long. But, you are quite right that swamps are not dank dismal places but rather clean clear and breathing. One of my favourite memories of my first swamp walk was standing perfectly still in cool, clear water about mid thigh high and feeling the water move ever so slightly (no not a gator gliding by) You knew the water was slowly making its way to Florida Bay and being filtered by the plants of Big Cypress and the glades along the way. I felt like Galileo when speaking of the earth going around the sun….”and yet it moves” and the water did and does. Nice to feel the living earth breathe even if more gentle and more imperceptible in Big Cypress Swamp than the ocean at the shore.

            1. What a beautiful description of that trip into the swamp, Judy. I’ve never experienced that kind of slow-moving water apart from the tides, and even there the movement often is faster than what you describe. The exception I remember is prior to Hurricane Ike. For two days, I watched the water rising under bright sun and clear blue skies, and without a sound: about an inch an hour. The message couldn’t have been clearer: time to go!

    1. Now, that’s interesting. I never would have connected epiphytic plants and acquariums, but I read just enough to make the connection understandable. It was fascinating to see how many sites there are dedicated to the plants, and how beautiful some of them are. No wonder you enjoy them, Tom!

    1. It’s always fun when a little project works out, and this one certainly did. My only regret is that I couldn’t find a way to photograph the interior of the flower more clearly. I barely could photograph it at all!

    1. Ball moss often is considered ugly; part of that’s a result of it being common in oak trees that are declining. The combination of gray, leafless trees and grayish moss looks rather like an Edward Gorey illustration, which is fine if you’re a fan of Gorey. Otherwise, it can be off-putting. But the moss doesn’t kill the trees, it only sets up shop there, and when it’s in a healthier environment, it can look rather nice.

      However my bit came to be in the parking lot, it was a fortunate find. Unlike most plants, it was perfectly happy to be plucked up and taken to a new home. With no roots to disturb, it went right on doing what it already was in the process of doing — producing flowers.

    1. Thank you, Derrick. A tripod might have helped, but on the other hand, being able to balance the camera on the rim of the clay pot where I’d plopped the moss may have served just as well.

    1. Speaking of bugs, your comment stirred some curiosity; I wondered how these were pollinated. I didn’t find many details, but I did find a couple of casual references to self-pollination. One thing’s certain — even a hoverfly would be bigger than these flowers. They’d do nicely for a vase in a dollhouse, though.

  6. Quite interesting, Linda, with great closeups. We have lichen epiphytes growing in our trees, which I might add, the deer find quite tasty! We just had 30 ponderosa pine and Douglas firs taken off our property this week. They were dead from drought and pine beetles. It was sad. Some of the trees were over 100 feet tall. Anyway, they had a lot of ‘moss’ and a herd of around 20 deer has been busy all week scarfing the stuff down, barely getting out of the way of falling trees. Except for hauling the logs off on Monday, the logging operation is over, but the deer are still working away.

    1. I just read that anyone who wants to manually remove ball moss from their live oaks, red oaks, or blackjacks needs to avoid doing it February through June, as that’s when the Nitidulid beetle is active. Knocking the moss out of the tree may cause open wounds and allow the beetle to infect the trees with oak wilt fungus.

      It’s a shame you lost so many trees; that really is a substantial number. It’s good that the deer can enjoy their ‘manna’ from heaven, so to speak, but it would be better to still have the trees. Here’s an odd question: if the deer haven’t cleaned off the trees by Monday, is it possible (or reasonable) to scrape off the remaining lichens for them? It seems a shame to haul off free candy!

      1. That would involve a lot of scraping, Linda. The deer will just have to live with what they were able to gulp down. One logging truck packed to the brim has already headed out. The logger is back now for his second load. I was surprised not to see any deer following him down our road! I am ready to see this job done. Being in the middle of a logging operation is a bit distractive to our peace and quiet.

        I don’t scrape anything off of our oak trees either. They seem happy, so I am happy too. The have a heck of an acorn crop this year. That will easily substitute for the moss the deer are missing. The bears, squirrels, and turkeys will be happy as well. We’ve already watched the deer standing on their hind legs as they make their first forays into the oak trees. And ground squirrels are climbing the trees. Aren’t they supposed to live on the ground. I would expect the tree squirrels to chase them out, except they are afraid of the ground squirrels. –Curt

        1. Logging trucks make me nervous. Now that I’ve spent a little time in east Texas — prime logging country — I’ve been reminded of just how nerve-wracking having one of those things on your tail can be. Of course, we don’t have the mountains to increase the fear factor. I still have a vague memory of grade school vacations in Colorado and points west, where we often were on roads with no guard rails and plenty of trucks. The fact that I have any memory of that’s a wonder; I think my mind tried to blot it out.

          I didn’t know ground squirrels would climb trees, but a good acorn crop is quite an enticement. My mother didn’t know I could climb, either, when she hid the chocolate chips in the cupboard up above the refrigerator.

          1. The third and final load went out this morning, Linda. I am sure it is worth a post. My dad was the electrician for a logging/lumber company, so I had plenty of experience with them as a kid. Including on roads with six inch dust. Always roll your windows up! And, given that most are paid by the load, they are always in a hurry.
            You and ground squirrels seem to have something in common. I am pretty sure ours would climb for chocolate chips as well.

    1. There’s a new phrase for that unnoticing: ‘plant blindness.’ I think the phrase is good, and the phenomenon certainly is real. When I think of how many years I walked around never noticing that ball moss was more than a gray-green clump in a tree, it occurs to me that I was suffering a bit of blindness myself: at least, in regard to that particular plant. I was so delighted to get a few photos of the flowers and seed pods, so others could see them, too.

      If your family down this way has any trees with ball moss in them, you might get a chance to see the flowers sometimes, too.

    1. I should have put something next to it to indicate relative size. A grain of rice would have done quite nicely. But, I was so challenged by the task of getting a photo — any photo! — of it, I didn’t think of such practicalities. I’ve since learned that the flowers of the better known Spanish moss are green, and equally small. Now, I have something else to look for, epipytically!

  7. Another excellent natural history post, Linda. I am familiar with some Tillandsias but not your ball moss. We have a small plant in the yard (willow herb) which could be described the same…over-looked for having small, almost nondescript, flowers. Most plants flower so even the ones below notice have some beauty to share…and pollen. Thanks for experimenting and showing us the many stages.

    1. In some ways, the fact that most intrigues me about the ball moss is that its presence on the Gulf coast is discontinuous; it’s not shown in Mississippi and Alabama, although Spanish moss reaches from Texas to Florida. Some day I’ll figure that out, but my list of mysteries to be solved is getting a little long, and that puzzlement will just have to get in line.

      I was surprised when I did an image search for ball moss flowers how few photos there are online. It makes sense that they’d be hard to spot in the wild, but apparently photographers have found them scarce and/or difficult to photograph, too. It makes having the images even more delightful.

      1. I think we’ve found you a niche among botanical photographers of the Gulf Coast. It’s always nice to be able to say you’ve got images of something most people have never even seen much less photographed.

        Maybe there are specific nutrients in the soil that is lacking in some places. I just had a comment from a fellow member of the FB Native Plants of New England group about why a certain plant that I shared might have had purple leaves when they usually are the more normal green…lack of phosphorus. Ecology is so interesting.

          1. Thanks. So we could have more monumental fall foliage if we could reduce phosphorus for a few weeks. Just kidding. We already are killing the environment with our meddling and bad habits. I’ve been seeing some early reds but there usually are a few early adopters as summer winds down.

            1. There’s exactly one New England level, bright red oak tree about an hour from me, just off the road. I’m thinking some sort of environmental factor has caused the color change, or everything around it would be showing signs of change, too. It certainly is striking. Too bad it’s surrounded by piles of stuff that doesn’t belong in a photo.

            2. If you are talking about trash then that’s a shame. I will, at times, remove trash either by hand or by Photoshop if it’s just a little bit. I prefer just picking it up and adding it to a bag I carry for such times. But if it’s too much or too disgusting to handle, then the healing brush in Photoshop is a good helper. Or, I just move along…nothing to photograph here.
              You are probably correct about the environment lacking something or having too much of something for that tree’s health. But there are some trees that are ahead of all the others. I am heading somewhere this morning where I saw an early bit of color the other day and may make an image or two. I hope to not jinx myself though. Last year I came a cross another early tree and after shooting it missed the rest of the autumn. Funny the connections some things have for us.

            3. No, it wasn’t “trash-trash” that kept me from stopping. There just was a lot of farm equipment, piles of piping, and such around the tree. I don’t mind an occasional human element in landscape photos, but an occasional tree in the midst of a humanscape isn’t so appealing.

  8. Your curiosity is our blessing. Glad you’ve not lost your sense of wonder. This story and photos are total enchantment.

    1. I certainly found myself enchanted by these tiny flowers. Since posting this, I’ve read in a couple of places that each flower consists of a single petal. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. If it is, the plant’s even more amazing. Clearly, more research is required.

    1. When I finally got some photos of the flowers, I couldn’t believe how detailed they are. I wish I could have seen down into the middle of them, but that just wasn’t going to happen. Now I’m eager to find the flowers of Spanish moss, which look to be the same size and shape — except that they’re green.

    1. Actually, ball moss and Spanish moss aren’t true mosses, despite their names. You’re right that true mosses don’t bloom; they don’t have flowers or seeds. They spread by spores. I laughed at your comment about a science project. That took me right back to grade school, and such high-level projects as pressing our fingers into Jello and then sticking our petri dishes into dark places until the mold started to grow.

      It was great fun to coax this one into bloom — and satisfying to be able to get some photos of the flowers.

  9. It’s amazing you were able to catch the blooms in time. They’re so sharp and detailed. It’s amazing you had the patience to do it. They’re so small.

    I began to collect a couple of Tillandsia for a short time. Some of them bloomed, some didn’t. There’s been a fad over them, also called ‘airplants’, to the point of people going to Central and South American forests and smuggling them to different parts of the world. They’re packaged in airtight bags and sold as curiosities, to be used for decor in little vases and mounted in all sorts of forms.

    They will only bloom once. Before, during or after blooming (depending on the species) the plant will produce offsets (Pups), most plants will produce between 2 – 8 pups. Each pup is a plant and it will bloom. After blooming, it’s good to leave the ‘mother’ plants alone because they’re still ‘nurturing’ the pups. The reason no one sees these ‘pups’ is because people extract them from the trees, but they are there, having grown from the ‘mother plant’.

      1. Ball moss doesn’t produce pups, per se. Small bits of the plant can take hold and begin to flourish in a new location, but wind-dispersed seed’s the most common means of reproduction.

          1. That’s right. Ball moss doesn’t kill trees, it only colonizes where conditions are right. People generally don’t notice its presence until a limb or an entire tree has begun to decline for other reasons, and then they blame the ball moss. It can be unslightly, but if it sets up shop in an important tree, hand-plucking will help to control it. Sometimes, of course, that’s difficult to impossible, but I do know of places where an annual ball-moss pluck takes place with the help of equipment like ‘cherry pickers.’

            1. I’m glad you were able to photograph it so well. I always found the bloom so tiny and didn’t have the patience. I also found out that putting them in air conditioning will surely kill them. They need lots of humidity but I didn’t know that at the time.

    1. It did take some patience, that’s for sure. Being able to bring the plant home was a great help: not only because I could watch the process, but also because it was easier to photograph here.

      The tendency of people to want to collect rare or unusual plants has led some naturalists I know to not list specific locations for their finds. Even though I’m not usually around rare plants, I have found unusual species, and I’m cautious about what I say. In fact, there’s a pretty white penstemon that led to a series of “please don’t pick the flowers!” articles because brides were picking so much of it, it had begun to decline. Even though it’s a common flower, human activity was threatening it.

      1. I confess having ‘picked’ a few Tillandsia directly from the trees themselves. However, I also found really nice ones on the ground, usually after a heavy rainfall.

    1. That’s understandable, because they can become unslightly. Every now and then I see a home or business owner that’s brought in a cherry-picker and put a crew to work plucking them off the oaks. Apparently some sprays will work, too — including baking soda, which really surprised me. Here’s a nice article from your area: the Kerr County extension office.

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