Ball moss is an inconspicuous, rather drab epiphyte on tree branches and sometimes telephone wires. It grows in a globular clump 6-10" in diameter and is often mistaken for a small clump of Spanish moss. Ball moss is gray-green with scaly, recurved, linear leaves 2-6" long. In autumn it produces 6" erect spikes with one to seven funnel-shaped, half inch long flowers with pale blue or violet petals and gray-scaly bracts at their bases.
Ball moss occurs in southern Arizona eastward across the southern half of Texas and Louisiana, and in coastal southeastern Georgia and the Florida peninsula (but not in the Panhandle) and throughout tropical America as far south as Argentina. It grows on most hardwood trees and seems to be especially fond of live oak, where it often grows on the shaded dead or dying branches in the interior of the tree.
Culture Light: Ball moss can grow in full sun but is usually found in partial shade under the canopy of large trees. Moisture: Ball moss usually is encountered in shady, humid environments such as on branches under the tree canopy. It does not have roots. It absorbs water from rain, and can tolerate dry periods by becoming dormant. Ball moss, like other bromeliads, is sensitive to lime. Never use water from a deep well which likely will have a high pH. Instead, irrigate with rain water or water that has been demineralized. To get the water where it needs to be, in the leaf axils and on the stems, use a sprayer or mister. Hardiness: USDA Zones 8 - 11. Ball moss can tolerate temperatures as low as 20 degrees F. Propagation: In nature, the tiny seeds are blown by the wind until they land on a tree branch where they stick fast and develop root-like attachments to the bark. Clumps of ball moss can be pulled apart to start new plants.
If you have oak trees in your yard and you live within the natural range of ball moss, chances are you already have it. If not, you can gather ball moss from dead limbs in an oak forest and inoculate your trees with pieces of the clumps. Ball moss can be grown like other bromeliads or orchids, tied to a decorative piece of wood or tree bark, or in an orchid basket. Leave outside in the rain during the summer and bring indoors when temperatures start falling below freezing. If kept indoors, mist with rainwater and a dilute solution of foliar fertilizer weekly during the growing season. Water sparingly during the winter.
Ball moss is not a moss. It is a true flowering plant, related to pineapple, Spanish moss, and other bromeliads. Ball moss is not a parasite. It does not take nutrients or water from its host, and it causes no harm to its host. It gets water from the atmosphere and rain and nutrients from the atmosphere and dust. Ball moss is a nitrogen fixer. That is, it is able to convert atmospheric nitrogen (which is unusable to plants) into a form that plants can use. Most plants, with the exception of the legumes, cannot do this. When ball moss falls to the ground, it actually fertilizes the soil for other plants.
Ball moss is the only epiphyte that regularly lives on telephone wires. Clumps of Spanish moss sometimes land on wires, but they don't survive. Look for ball moss on wires in humid places such as alongside a bridge over a creek or wetland.
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