Stranger (Tree) Things

Ball moss and mistletoe are unsettling oddities that can strike fear in the hearts of tree lovers. Are they paranormal parasites? Interdimensional intruders? Turns out those theories (and other tall tales) are completely upside down.

If you’re a helicopter gardener, you may stare at your plants regularly. Sometimes I see things — like a bizarre bump on a stem — and go straight to worst case scenario, even though I know the plant will be just fine.

Still, I worry all the time. And many people worry about their trees in the same way. In fact, two oddities often spotted high up in the canopies of trees clinging to the branches are enough to strike fear in the hearts of many tree lovers.

Ball moss and mistletoe live in similar places, but do very different things. And neither will harm your trees, despite the bad rap they get from some professional landscape care companies.

Ball moss

One of my absolute favorite plants, ball moss (Tillandsia recurvate) belongs to a group of plants sometimes referred to as air plants. They don’t have roots and gather their nutrients from the air and water that falls naturally. Most common indoor species are from tropical places, whereas our local ball moss looks like a sad brown tangle due to its adaption to our dry climate.

Ball moss happily flourish in live oak trees and grow throughout without taking anything from the tree. However, many tree trimmers and other outdoor care companies will try to convince homeowners that ball moss is damaging to trees and must be removed regularly. Also, you may hear that they bring disease that could kill your tree. But it’s a case of correlation without causation. Ball moss has a tendency to heavily colonize existing ill trees, so when the tree finally shows signs of stress ball moss gets the blame.


A hemi-parasite, mistletoe makes some of its own food via photosynthesis, but it also steals some food from trees it grows on. One clump will not kill your tree but a large infestation can. It will generally simply grow and be a rare sight of green in your landscape come winter when the deciduous trees drop their leaves.

You don’t need to remove either plant from your trees, regardless of what tree care companies will tell you. Though you can collect them and use them to decorate your home or patio. And when your friends and family come over and question the weird squiggly, rootless plants on your kitchen counter, educate them about these strange tree things and how they’re actually harmless.

Picture of Sarah Gorton
Sarah Gorton
Sarah Gorton is a Planner with the SAWS Conservation department. She is passionate about bats and native plants, with a particular fondness for horseherb! Sarah has completed certifications through Texas Master Naturalist and Native Plant Society. When she isn't working on her research on the use of native grasses for uptaking pollutants at UTSA, she can be found making stained glass or hanging out with her two Chihuahuas.
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