Moss on Your Oak Tree: Identification and Removal Guide

Spanish moss growing on old oak trees in the southern united states.

That extra green, drapey stuff hanging all over your oak trees, well, that’s moss. Although, based on personal preference, by something you like the look of or don’t, moss on your oak tree indeed doesn’t mean too much and usually doesn’t do much harm to your tree. 

Moss is a nonvascular flowering plant, an epiphyte that grows on oak trees. In most cases, moss does not need to be removed from a healthy oak tree. Unless moss is abundant on your oak tree, moss is rarely the cause of significant oak tree damage and can be monitored and left alone.

Moss is commonly seen on oak trees, especially mature ones, and moss will use the oak tree as its host for as long as possible. However, you may be wondering – how did moss get on my oak tree in the first place? Keep on reading to learn a bit about moss and what it means for your oak trees. 

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Tree Moss: What is It?

Moss is part of the Bromeliad family of plants, and believe it or not – the Bromeliad family consists of moss, pineapples, and succulents! What an interesting mix, right? 

Moss, pineapples, and succulents are epiphytes – meaning, they are plants that are not parasitic and will grow on other host plants without taking nutrients from them. 

Moss is a nonvascular plant, which means it doesn’t have any vessels or roots. Because of its nonvascular makeup – moss isn’t able to collect nutrients from its nearby plants, and instead, moss collects water and nutrients from the air! 

Instead of roots, moss has rhizoids, which are small hair-like structures, which keep the moss in place. The best way to describe it would be like small, little suction cups clinging to their surroundings. 

Dating back to 450 million years ago, there are so many different variations of moss, and moss can be seen in almost all and every climate – all moss needs to survive is moisture. 

How Does Moss Grow on Oak Trees?

Bark covered with moss on the trunk of a tree close up

Moss grows because the environment is perfect – that’s really all it takes to grow moss. 

Moss is self-disciplined and doesn’t need help from other plants or us for it to grow successfully. However, the one thing it does need is moisture, and that comes from the air! 

Growing rapidly, moss will grow on almost any surface – plants, pavements, buildings – wherever the conditions see fit, moss will suddenly appear. 

And it’s true – it’s almost as if they suddenly appear. Like fungi, moss grows from spores – however, moss is not fungi at all. When dust particles mix with moisture and nutrients in the air – moss suddenly begins to form. 

Moss can grow to prosperous ranks within 6 weeks! This fast-growing plant can take over gardens, lawns, trees, and other landscaping, and although some people love the look of it – others cannot stand it! 

But have no fear – moss almost never causes harm directly to your oak tree. And if you feel your oak tree is being harmed, there is a good chance that it has an underlying issue going on. 

But you may be wondering – why are oak trees susceptible to moss in the first place? Well, we’re going to tell you right now!

If you’re interested in planting an oak tree and worried about moss growing on it, you should read our guide on planting an oak tree in your backyard here.

Moss Needs Dark and Humid Conditions to Grow on Oak Trees

Have you ever noticed when walking through a forest that there is a lot of moss? Well, the reason why moss is typically seen in forests is because of how much shade is in forests from all the tree’s canopies!

Moss needs shade and moisture to grow – making a forest an ideal climate. 

Even without rain, a forest has so much moisture because of all the trees that are around, and because of that, the air itself has more moisture in it, and then the mix of the two creates the perfect foundation for moss to form! 

Because of how fond it is with shade and moisture, there are certain trees that are perfection in moss’ eyes – one being the oak tree!

Moss Prefers Oak Trees 

Do oak trees love moss, or do moss love oak trees? The question of the year, right here. But the fact is – moss loves oak trees. Oak trees provide the perfect home for moss to grow, and the reason has to directly do with the makeup of the tree itself. 

Oak trees are wide and tall and provide an abundance of shade because of their wide canopies. They have a plethora of branches to provide areas for moss to grow.

In truth, many oak variations, especially white oak trees, have deep ridges in their barks that hold moisture and are typically damp and provides a dark area for moss to breed. 

If you’re interested in the difference between white and red oak trees, you can read more about their major differences here.

All around, oak trees provide the perfect conditions for moss because moss needs a dark, humid space to grow. Once those conditions are met, moss grows out of control and will hold on to its host for as long as it can – and it will mingle with its host to stay afloat.

Moss Needs Branches if it’s Growing on Oak Trees

You wouldn’t think that moss needs branches to survive, but indirectly, it does if it’s growing on a tree. 

Because moss is nonvascular – it doesn’t have any roots and doesn’t adhere to anything on its own; therefore, it needs other ways to support itself and to keep it in place, and that’s where branches come in handy. 

When moss starts to grow on trees, it naturally will spread upwards and out and will start to hang over branches and limbs – this is what keeps it in place and growing. 

Without branches, moss would merely be hanging on to the small ridges that come from the bark, and that would not be enough for moss to support itself.

But are all moss the same? When thinking of hanging on branches, the go-to moss image that comes to mind is – really hangy moss – but there are a few types of moss that hang out on oak trees.

Types of Moss that Grow on Oak Trees

There are three common types of moss that grow on oaks trees – Spanish moss, mall moss, and common haircap moss. All the moss are generally similar in nature but vary in appearance. 

Spanish Moss

A huge old oak tree draped with spanish moss.
A huge old oak tree draped with Spanish moss.

Native to Mexico, Spanish moss is seen in the more Southern parts of the United States and in tropical environments. With its chandelierlike stature, Spanish Moss resembles light pendants hanging from a ceiling, providing trees with a very fairy-like ethereal appearance.

Wherever Spanish Moss grows, you typically see a lot of it throughout the location. Spanish moss is usually in the lower canopies of trees, and because of its non-parasitic nature, causes no harm to a tree. 

However, it is important to understand that moss also can grow in sunlight, and if you happen to see a lot of moss on your oak tree – the canopy may be thinning and letting the sun in, and if so, the more humidity arises, and the more likely moss will grow. 

We write a little bit more on Spanish moss on your trees in our piece on tree moss in Florida here.

Ball Moss

Tillandsia recurvata (ball moss) aerial plant in baja california sur mexico.
Tillandsia recurvata (ball moss) aerial Plant in Baja California Sur Mexico.

Much like Spanish moss, ball moss grows on trees; however, it’s truly shaped in a ball-like cluster shape. 

Ball moss has pseudo-roots; it appears to be gripping onto something. However, since Ball moss intertwines and encircles whatever it is on, the reason it sticks to oak trees is because of its wrapping nature, and it doesn’t have roots at all.

However, unlike Spanish moss – ball moss can cause a bit more problems for your oak tree. Because of how tightly wound ball moss can get, it can stop a tree from developing buds, especially if it’s wrapped around branches, which over time will stop the oak tree growth, and the tree will get damaged. 

Common Haircap Moss

Polytrichastrum formosum commonly called haircap moss or hair moss.
Polytrichastrum formosum commonly called haircap moss or hair moss.

Common haircap moss is seen throughout heavily humid areas, with a lot of rainfall – and is the most common type of moss throughout the United States of America. 

Common haircap moss is one of the tallest growing moss and can grow as tall as 30 cm. Haircap moss has piney stems, and leaves can range from 6-12 mm. Common haircap can be seen on your oak trees, especially in Ohio and Illinois. 

Overall, common haircap moss looks like a little like a small, green fireworks display stemming up from its roots… wild!

Should You Remove Moss From Your Oak Tree?

The question that still remains is – if moss is on your oak tree, should you remove it? Well, it depends on a few things. 

If moss is on your oak tree and your tree looks to be in healthy condition, moss does not need to be removed. If moss is on your oak tree, and your tree is declining in health, it may be due to moss damage, but in most cases is due to a different oak tree affliction.

If you’re wondering if your tree damage is moss-related, you can read our piece on the most common oak tree afflictions here.

In fact, if it is moss-related, it most likely has to do with a scenario that is often seen with ball moss – that it is so intertwined on the branches of the tree that it may be stopping the tree’s buds from growing. 

Another reason as to whether you should remove moss or not is merely based on personal preference – it’s just what you like! 

Moss draping from branches like Spanish moss is said to provide a very regal and, yet, historical look to your oak tree. But to some, it can look like a webby mess or dirty! It’s truly a matter of preference. 

However, if you do choose to remove it, there are certain ways to remove moss! 

How to Remove Moss from an Oak Tree 

Removing moss from an oak tree can be relatively easy if you have the right tools and catch it quick enough – however, it is way easier when moss is just appearing on your trees than when it’s been there for 6 weeks or more. 

Remember, it takes moss 6 weeks for moss to truly prosper – and once it starts, it’s never going back! When moss is lively and green, it’s living its best life – however, this can be the hardest time to remove it, especially if been there for more than that 6-week period. 

On the contrary, if moss is ashy and white, it may be one of the easiest times to remove moss – but either way, there are some steps to take to remove it! 

However, it is always best to check in with a professional before you start removing moss on your own. 

Option 1: Use a Soft Brush to Remove Moss 

Using a soft brush, scrub brush, or broom with soft bristles – is a great place to start the moss-removal experience. By taking the brush and scrubbing the moss, adding extra pressure to bigger clumps of moss and less pressure to smaller, thinner clumps, you may be able to loosen up the moss or fully remove some of its pieces. 

A great brush to try out, especially if there are a lot of crevices where the moss is lying, is Moss Removal Deck Crevice Tool, specifically made for decks; this can be a good brush to add to your toolbox for hard to reach moss removal. 

If using a soft brush isn’t doing the full job, the next step to take would be to pick at it with your hands! 

Option 2: Use Your Hands to Remove Moss

Taking full precaution, as moss can have bugs in it and it can be prickly, wearing elbow-length, thornproof gloves, use your hands to move the moss around and to lightly tug at it. Do not grab the moss tightly, as you can hurt yourself. 

If you are in need of some thorn-proof gloves that are perfect for all types of gardening, you may want to check out Acdyion Gardening Gloves for Women/Men!

If you don’t want to touch moss, grab a nearby stick or twig, or use a tool like a rake, and see if you can get underneath the moss a little bit and loosen it from the tree. 

If you feel this step is appropriate action to take, but you are unsure how, please check in with a professional before doing so. 

Option 3: Use a Pole Saw or Pruning Tool For Hard-to-Reach Moss 

One last way that can help with the moss removal and can be done as the last step when the moss is dead is to use a pole saw or pruning tool to actually cut any remaining moss that is hanging high on the branches. 

Since moss, like Spanish moss, drapes over branches, sometimes for it to let go, it needs to be cut away because with its wrapping nature – moss can be tightly wound and impossible to loosen up! 

However, do not stand directly underneath falling moss – as it contains bugs and can be prickly and irritate you. 

If you want to try this method, check out this easy-to-use pole saw Greenworks 40V 8-Inch Cordless Pole Saw, it’s cordless, so it’s perfect for those hard-to-reach places!

Where Else Does Moss Grow?

Moss will grow on almost any hard surface. The most common spots are barks, pavements, on rocks, on the ground, on lawns, and even on houses, roofs, and other man-made structures. 

Polytrichum formosum (common haircap moss)
Polytrichum formosum (Common haircap moss)

Moss doesn’t discriminate when it comes to its choice of the host location; however, all that matters is that for moss to grow, the environment needs to be right. 

You will find moss in any location where moisture is abundant. Have you ever noticed the plants around a small creek or river? When there is water present, and especially in forests where shade is everywhere, moss will grow alongside the creeks and water supply and create a truly ethereal landscape.

The greener the moss, the more alive it is, and the more it will flourish. And in our opinion, that blanket-like appearance of the plant, especially when growing on rocks and close-to-the-ground plants, is something out of a fairytale – it’s an unbelievable, breath-taking sight to see. 

That’s a Wrap!

Moss can either be something out of a fairytale – or a big mess on your oak trees! Completely up to personal preference, moss can be an asset or a disadvantage to your oak trees and landscape. 

When dealing with moss, more times than not, it is harmless; however, if it’s not to your liking, you have every right to remove it from your trees and property!

However, always take precautions when you start to remove moss and check in with a professional before doing so.

If you’re interested in learning more about planting oak trees, check out our guide on the best oak trees to plant here!

References

Birge, W. I. (1911). The Anatomy and Some Biological Aspects of the” Ball Moss,”: Tillandsia recurvata L (No. 20). University of Texas.

Drda, G. S., & Wyatt, R. (1990). Genetic variation in the common hair-cap moss, Polytrichum commune. Systematic Botany, 592-605.

Garth, R. E. (1964). The ecology of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides): its growth and distribution. Ecology45(3), 470-481.

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