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Global Forests -
Little Known or Interesting Factoids About Trees and Tree Physiology


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                     Karen Rockoff  Arborist  - TDA Certified

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Ball moss (Tillandsia recurvata) is a small, nondescript plant commonly found in southwest Texas. It is not a moss, but a true plant with flowers and seeds. It is a member of the bromeliad family, so it is related to the pineapple. Like many other bromeliads, these plants are epiphytes or "air plants". Epiphytes attach themselves to limbs, tree trunks, power lines fences and other structures with their pseudo-roots. These are not true roots because they do not absorb water and nutrients. They merely attach the plant to the aerial structure and do not absorb water and minerals from their host structure.
Ball moss it is not a parasite. 

Ball moss survives by absorbing water and nutrients from the surrounding atmosphere through its leaves and stems, which have scales, known as trichomes and help the plant to capture and conserve water and are critical to their survival in most climates. Consequently, ball moss prefers sites with little air movement, high relative humidity and filtered sun light. Ball moss benefits the environment by "fixing" atmospheric nitrogen and adding it to the soil, much like alfalfa and clover.

Live oaks develop a crown which is very thick on the exterior but quite open in the interior. These interior branches die partly due to the ball moss which competes for sun light and the natural low light environment. Ball moss has not been studied intensively and evidence of all it's ecological significance is lacking. Concerns have been raised about the negative effects on many forests and urban trees. There is no doubt that heavily laden branches do shade lower vegetation and intercept light needed for photosynthesis. Infestations can become so intense and the competition for sun light so great , that ball moss can literally smother and weaken the tree, and death will ultimately reign. Also, branch breakage does occur with heavy infestations and this can open the way for secondary infections by oak wilt fungi or insects.
Ball Moss is a perfect plant, producing a flower and seeds. The seeds are much like that of a dandelion a parachute seed. The small seeds are produced in a capsule on a slender 3-5 inch stalk. the stalks extend above the bushy plant growth. When mature, the capsule burst open releasing the tiny parachute seeds that drift on the slightest movement of air.
The tiny seeds will attach securely to the rough bark of the tree and germinate immediately. As the plant grows, root like structures ( pseudo-roots or false roots ) attach the young plant to the rough surface. Another term, for the small roots is ' hold fast ' . Excessive infestation is a serious concern of property owners about their shade trees.
Ball MossManagement
There are three methods for control of ball moss. If it doesn't bother you and it does not endanger the health of the tree, leave it. Mechanical or hand removal is the best method of control.  This should be considered when infestations are quite intense and the tree's health is at risk. Most arborist can remove from 70 to 90%, which is labor intensive and costly. This should be integrated and considered as part of the normal trimming and pruning maintenance program, thinning the canopy which should last for approximately five years. This pruning regime is consistent with proper tree maintenance; however a word of caution due to oak wilt:  prune during the hottest or coldest times of the year and paint all wounds. If the remaining ball moss is a problem, then chemical control should be considered. Ball moss can be sprayed with baking soda, Kocide 2000 or other copper-based herbicides and fungicides, which are labeled for control of ball moss. The recommended time of year to spray either mixtures is from January through to leaf fall in late March when the canopy is usually thinner. Kocide 2000 is labeled for year around application at the rate of 6 lbs per 100 gallons, and baking soda, though not labeled, can also be applied at a rate of 50 Lbs per 100 gallons. It is best and safest to apply if ranch animals are present as they will eat any moss that fall to the ground.  In both cases it is best to add about a pint of spreader, surfactant or sticker per 100 gallons. For the best results, apply immediately after a rain or in cool weather. The Ball moss will start to discolor and will begin to droop in 8 to 10 days, but it will not fall off for two or three years. Be sure not to spray your Live Oak trees in April, as baking soda will burn the new tender leaves. Do not apply Kocide in April as it will cause serious damage to the new tender leaves. You can resume spraying with Kocide for the first two weeks in May. 
A rain following trreatment is necessary to provide maximum effectiveness. It is speculated that the moss quickly takes in nutrients through its leaf like strucktures following rain or a heavy dew.

Scenic Hills Nursery recommends the following methods for control of ball moss:  mechanical removal first, as part of your regular pruning maintenance program, then chemical spraying. There is a very important eco-system under every tree. It is like a thick piece of bread, with micro and macro capillaries, which hold the necessary gases, moisture and nutrients for the health and growth of the tree. Ninety-five percent of all tree roots are within 12" to 16" from the surface and attached to these roots is a fungi called mycorrhizae or root fungus. This root fungus, absorbs, dissolves and feeds the tree, and in turn the tree feeds the fungi with sugar and starch. If this micro eco-system becomes damaged or compacted, gases, nutrients and moisture become unavailable and then the tree can be in serious trouble. 

Baking soda is toxic to fungi as well as the heavy copper ion-based herbicides and fungicides. Excessive amounts of fungicides can damage or destroy the natural fungi and microbes in the soil. When spraying is necessary as part of the control and in conjunction with pruning, the result will be less chemical and least possible damage to the tree's eco-system. Remember, neither pruning nor spraying will remove all the ball moss from the trees; however they will certainly benefit the trees and make you feel better.

Tree is being smothered
by intensity of 


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