For some homeowners, ball moss on an oak tree is a mark of character; for others, it’s an eyesore. A common plant that grows on the branches of oaks, it can quickly overwhelm its host tree. But, is ball moss helpful or harmful to an oak tree?
Ball moss is helpful because it converts nitrogen into a nutrient, adding it to the soil. Contrarily, it’s harmful because it potentially weakens an oak tree. Ball moss is removed through picking, pruning, and spraying. Using all three techniques is best for removing and prevention.
Keep reading to discover more about what ball moss is, the different ways in which it harms and helps oak trees as well as how to manage it on the oak trees in your yard.
What Is Ball Moss?
Ball moss is a flowering plant from the Bromeliaceae family that often grows on the branches of oak trees. It can even grow on power lines, fences, or rocks. Ball moss is sometimes mistaken for a jumble of Spanish moss, which hangs from tree limbs like a long, wispy beard.
If you are having trouble figuring out what moss is growing on your oak tree, you should check out one of our popular articles, Moss On Your Oak Tree: Identification And Removal Guide.
Ball Moss Is An Epiphyte: A Non-Parasitic Air Plant
Neither ball moss nor Spanish moss is actual moss, though. They’re epiphytes, which are also known as air plants. They grow on structures and other vegetation with pseudo-roots.
These pseudo-roots don’t take in nutrients or water as tree roots do. Instead, they provide an anchor that attaches the plant to the surface. This fact leads some homeowners to think that ball moss is a parasite.
Here’s the truth: ball moss isn’t a parasite. When a parasite attaches itself to a living organism, it collects food from that organism – usually at the host’s expense. Since ball moss can thrive on non-living structures such as power lines, it’s clear that it doesn’t receive nourishment from its physical supporters.
With its leaves, ball moss absorbs water from rainfall in addition to water vapor from the air. This acquisition allows ball moss to quickly grow from its fastened perch. This epiphyte also grabs most of its nutrients from the debris or dust that aggregates on the host plant or structure. Some minerals are absorbed from rainfall, too.
Ball Moss Needs A High Humidity Environment
Most air plants thrive in tropical regions with plenty of sunlight and high humidity. Living among shaded tropical vegetation, air plants seize nutrients from the organic detritus that gathers in a tree canopy. Many of these air plants are flowering plants or angiosperms, which include orchids and other plants in the pineapple family.
Air plants such as mosses, liverworts, and ferns thrive in both mild and tropical areas. Interestingly, ball moss is the only air plant that is found to also live in arid regions. This includes the deserts along Mexico’s western coast where ball moss absorbs water from the oceanic fog.
Specifically, ball moss grows in regions with high humidity, little airflow, and reduced light intensity. These conditions often match the canopy underside of numerous shade trees like oaks. Since trees typically grow leaves and other vegetation toward the end of their branches, their central limbs are often empty; this interior area leaves a perfect place for ball moss to attach itself and flourish.
If you wish to keep ball moss alive in a more controlled area such as a greenhouse, you can try a handheld mister such as this Ebristar Glass Plant Mister.
Air plants like ball moss require the wind to disperse their feather-like seeds. Animals can disperse these seeds as well. The dispersal range of it’s seeds is vast. Currently, ball moss extends from the Southern United States to Chile and Argentina.
Ball moss is often seen in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Arizona, Texas as well as Mexico, and most of Central and South America. This air plant is a staple on many southern live oak trees, even ones that are declining or expired. This causes a few homeowners to assume that ball moss is responsible for the deterioration of these oaks.
Is Ball Moss Helpful Or Harmful To Oak Trees?
Ball moss grows in the central canopy of healthy oaks as well as sickly ones. The air plant is easier to spot in the oaks that are ill, leading to a common misperception that ball moss is harmful to the trees. Examining the misperceptions, benefits, and disadvantages of this moss can help you decide whether this air plant is good for your yard’s oak trees.
Misperceptions About Ball Moss
These are four common misperceptions about ball moss:
- Ball moss is a parasite. As a reminder, ball moss isn’t parasitic. It’s not actively harming an oak tree by stealing its nutrients (as a parasite does). Ball moss absorbs its nutrients from the atmosphere.
- Ball moss is responsible for a thinning tree canopy. It isn’t responsible for thinning an oak tree canopy. Insufficient drainage, disease, and compacted soil are much more likely suspects for a thinning tree canopy.
- Ball moss deteriorates an oak tree’s health by blocking the leaves’ access to sunlight. There’s no direct evidence that this is the case. Especially since ball moss populates in the interior part of the canopy (where the oak tree’s limbs are bare), it isn’t competing with the oak’s leaves that are growing at the end of the tree’s branches.
- Ball moss causes an oak tree’s limbs to break. Branches infested with ball moss can indeed break off from the tree due to the additional weight, especially if it’s rainy or windy. These branches, however, are typically dead or dying before the ball moss was on the tree. Interior limbs usually die because of little sunlight, regardless of the presence of ball moss.
Benefits Of Ball Moss
Ball moss offers some benefits to your yard’s oak trees. Birds can use a big cluster of ball moss as shelter. (This tends to happen if the cluster is near their nest.) Ball moss can also attract insects to the oak tree, and birds can enjoy these critters for their meals.
In addition, ball moss takes in nitrogen from the atmosphere and converts it into a nutrient. The nutrient is added to the soil at the tree’s base. This benefits the oak and all surrounding vegetation.
Cosmetically, some homeowners even like the look of ball moss on an oak tree. These individuals say that it adds character to the tree. For them, ball moss provides an august quality to a mature oak tree.
Disadvantages Of Ball Moss
There are several disadvantages to ball mass growing in your yard’s oak trees. Some homeowners say that ball moss can weaken oak trees, which could lead to the trees’ premature decline. This might be caused by the tendrils on ball moss: they envelop the branches and stems of the tree to successfully affix the air plant to a branch.
As the ball moss grows, these tendrils can intensify their grip. This can decrease circulation in the tree. Also, it’s conceivable that severe infestations can slow down the development of new buds and shoots on a tree.
Another disadvantage is that once ball moss attaches itself to a tree, it can spread to other trees in the locale. Since ball moss requires wind for seed distribution, it’s not too hard for the plant to get around. This can quickly lead to an overabundance in one small area.
Also, on a cosmetic level, some homeowners dislike the look of ball moss on a tree. They think that the air plant detracts from the natural allure of the tree. Some of them might even call it an eyesore.
What Is The Removal Process For Ball Moss?
If you decide that the disadvantages of this air plant outweigh its benefits, or that ball moss in your yard’s oak trees is too unsightly, then it’s time to learn about the removal process. Traditionally, there are three ways that you can remove ball mass from your oak tree. These techniques include picking, pruning, and spraying.
On its own, each technique isn’t enough to entirely remove ball moss from your tree nor prevent its return. The best approach is to incorporate the three techniques in your removal process. Each technique – as well as an integrated approach – is detailed below.
Picking And Pruning Ball Moss
Picking requires pulling off each ball moss from the tree, usually one by one. Undoubtedly, this is laborious and time-consuming. This technique could be hazardous if you’re not using an aerial work platform or cherry picker; however, it can be effective in removing the ball moss from your oak tree.
Pruning is another technique that involves cutting away the dead or dying interior limbs from the oak tree and completely removing them. Since ball moss mostly grows on these dead branches, you’ll remove nearly all of the moss from your oak tree this way. This takes time, and you might want to hire a professional tree trimmer to do it.
Furthermore, ball moss thrives in conditions with reduced light intensity. If you choose to lightly thin the canopy of the oak tree while pruning, more sunlight will hit the central area of the tree, which will deter another infestation of ball moss. After pruning, make sure to use a pruning seal on the cuts because this prevents the spread of oak wilt.
For picking moss that is especially high up on the tree you could use a product like this RMS 34 Inch Extra Long Grabber.
Oak wilt is caused by beetles that bore into wood. They’re drawn to oak trees’ sap, and fresh cuts on oak trees attract their attention. The beetles’ bodies carry a fungus that generates oak wilt; so, wherever the beetles go, oak wilt will also spread.
This is why it’s crucial to use a pruning seal on any cuts made while pruning your oak tree. The timing of pruning your oak tree also matters regarding to preventing the spread of oak wilt disease. The beetles are most active in moderate weather, so it’s recommended to prune your oak during the middle of summer or winter.
Removing Ball Moss By Spraying
Spraying includes lightly showering a chemical to your oak tree using a foliar spray. A copper-based fungicide is one chemical option. Copper-based fungicide is designed to eliminate ball moss on oak trees.
You’ll apply the spray in the spring when the ball moss is readily growing. Avoid using more than the recommended amount because too much of this chemical could damage your oak tree. In five to seven days, the ball moss will no longer grow.
It’s important to note that copper-based fungicide may drift during use. This can cause damage to vegetation that’s near the sprayed oak tree. Furthermore, it can also cause damage to metal surfaces, such as outdoor furniture.
On the other hand, if you are looking to use homemade or dilutable sprays, you could easily disperse them with this CHAPIN Garden Sprayer!
Additionally, copper-based fungicides mark surfaces they touch with a blue stain. Take extra precautions if you’re spraying close to buildings and other outdoor objects. Given all of these considerations, while using a copper-based fungicide, you might want to hire a landscape professional to take on the job.
After the fungicide is applied, the ball moss will not promptly fall from the oak tree. Rather, it will slowly fall away as the year progresses. It may need the force from a rainstorm or a wind gust to push it out.
If you don’t want to wait for the ball moss to naturally fall from the tree, you can remove the air plant with a hose. You’ll simply attach a high-pressure nozzle to your water hose, turn on the water and direct the water stream at the ball moss. As you do so, be careful to not shoot off the tree’s bark or break any branches. Also, avoid using hot water because it can harm the tree.
For more natural treatment of ball moss, you can also use baking soda and water. You’ll add half of a pound of baking soda per every one gallon of water. For example, if you plan to use four gallons of water, then you’ll need two pounds of baking soda. Add this mixture to your sprayer, and directly spray all of the areas where the ball moss is growing on the tree.
The Best Approach To Removal: Pick, Prune, And Spray Ball Moss
Incorporating the three removal techniques for ball moss – pricking, pruning, and spraying – is the best approach to eliminating the air plant from your oak tree. This integrated method will also prevent ball moss from coming back. Starting to pick the moss is effective in removing it from the tree, but it won’t prevent the air plant from returning to the tree.
This is why pruning, in addition to picking, is essential. Removing the deadwood from your oak tree eliminates the opportunity for ball moss to attach itself to the interior branches. It also provides overall health maintenance for the tree.
Spraying ball moss can be done after pruning your oak tree. Using either a copper-based fungicide or baking soda and water, spraying stops ball moss from growing. Spraying can also curb the likelihood of a future infestation.
That’s A Wrap!
Ball moss is either a beauty mark or a nuisance for oak trees depending on a homeowner’s aesthetic and preference. Ball moss is helpful because it converts nitrogen into a nutrient, adding it to the soil underneath an oak tree. Yet, it’s also harmful because it potentially weakens the oak in which it resides.
If you are dealing with other types of moss, you should look our other poplar moss article: Spanish Moss On Your Oak Tree: Here’s What To Do.
Removing ball moss through picking, pruning and spraying are effective in removing it and preventing its return. The best results include using all three of these techniques. The finest management of ball moss ultimately rests in your opinion about the non-parasitic air plant.
Arny, Nancy P. Spanish moss and ball moss. University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences, EDIS, 1996.
Birge, Willie Isabella. The Anatomy and Some Biological Aspects of the” Ball Moss,”: Tillandsia recurvata L. No. 20. University of Texas, 1911.
Harvey, Celia A. “Patterns of seed colonization and seedling establishment of ball moss (Tillandsia recurvata) on sand live oak trees (Quercus geminata) in Central Florida.” Florida Scientist (1996): 76-81.
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