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
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