Tillandsia recurvata

Ball moss aka air plants are distant relatives of the pineapple. They are extremely common wild plants here in Austin that grow just about anywhere there is shade. They can get as big as soccer balls.

Tillandsia recurvata

When I first moved here people told me it was a parasite and that it killed trees. So much for local knowledge … Tillandsias are perfectly harmless. The only thing they take from a tree is a place to perch though sometimes they may decorate themselves with their landlord’s flowers. In the picture below spent crepe myrtle blossoms have become tangled in the leaves. I suppose a tree might be at some risk if there were enough Tillandisias to steal all the light and water but I think that if there are that many growing on a tree there is probably another issue or two involved.

Tillandsia recurvata

Tillandisia make their own understated flowers. Their fruit promises to be useful for cancer and inflammation treatments and is under investigation.

Tillandisias are a bit like conjurers: making much of seemingly nothing at all. The grey ‘leaves’ have tiny scales that trap humidity — a reliable source of water as it sure does get humid here. The first time I stepped outside of the Austin airport it felt like the air was alive: it was that thick with water. As nitrogen-fixing plants they cooperate with bacteria to extract their food from the air, too. Even reproduction is effortless. Their seeds usually travel through the digestive systems of birds though they can be dispersed by the wind. Probably the bird method is superior since the seed is sort of painted on the tree bark and so less likely to fall off.

I love how their lives are so simple and easy. Compared to our complicated existence it is no wonder they look so alien!


12 thoughts on “Tillandsia recurvata

  1. I remember hearing that myth about tillandsia killing trees when I was growing up. I think people got it confused with spanish moss (also an epiphyte) that apparently rarely does overwhelm and thereby harm the tree that hosts it.

    I am a huge fan of tillandsia – often tuck them into the corners of trellises or in the entry hole of decorative birdhouses. I’ve placed them around the base of plants in decorative pots, used them in terrariums, just about any way they can be admired, I’m game to try. I think they are truly beautiful in their own tiny universe-in-a-plant way. Next to lichen, they are my very favorite mini-plants.

    PS – love the rotating header shots. Fun to see what will appear next! And…soccer ball sized? Yowza – never seen that but surely would love to!


    1. I am glad you like the random header shots. =) It didn’t seem a far fetched notion to me that they could kill a tree. They do have a tendency to grow on old declining trees. Especially on the live oaks tthere is a lot of shade from above and room on the twigs to take hold. Sometimes I see a great many all in a row on dead branches. It is an easy to make mistake of misunderstanding cause and effect or which came first. As for soccer ball sized (!) … I must admit I haven’t seen one that big but I read about it in a couple of sources. I should do a fact check on that and see if perhaps each source just copied someone. Or, maybe that just happens in Florida where everything is bigger. haha.


    1. Thanks. I suppose locals don’t even notice these things since they are so common but I think they look really exotic. Since our property is so moist and shady I have started looking around for cold hardy tropical plants that can add some colour to the endless green. They won’t be native to Texas but they might still make a good fit.


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