Dangling in the trees among the birds, squirrels and Mardi Gras beads in areas like Spanish Town is an unsightly vegetation some Baton Rouge property owners would like to see eradicated.
Ball moss, the less-loved cousin of draping Spanish moss, has been prompting lots of calls to tree specialists of late. Often seen as an ugly nuisance, the fist-sized plants are blamed for taking down trees, but arborists say that's usually not the case.
Ball moss is a true plant, meaning it photosynthesizes its own food rather than leeching nutrients from its host like a parasite. In fact, the moss can grow on nonliving surfaces such as fences and telephone poles.
The species is native to states across the South from Arizona to Georgia, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, it only showed up in Baton Rouge about a half-century ago, said plant pathologist Raj Singh, of the LSU Ag Center.
"It's kind of colonizing everything on campus now," he said.
Trees that are thoroughly covered have to be protected by removing the ball moss, as has been the case with several crape myrtles along Dalrymple Drive, Singh said. A little moss here and there on a tree isn't a problem.
Sometimes people think ball moss has killed a tree when it died for other reasons. Denuded of its leaves, the remaining ball moss stands out more, said Neil Odenwald, retired director of LSU's school of landscape architecture. Texas A&M's forest service also points out ball moss prefers shadier sites like inside a tree's canopy where branches die because they don't get much sunlight.
Generally, property owners don't need to take any special action to manage ball moss. It's only time to worry when so much accumulates that a tree doesn't have room for enough new leaves to collect adequate sunlight or when there's so much moss that it can weigh down and snap branches when they soak up rainwater, Singh said.
Landscape architect Suzanne Turner is encouraging Baton Rouge residents — particularly downtown — to be vigilant in controlling the plant. Downtown corridors like North Boulevard and Convention Street have sites with especially heavy concentrations of ball moss, which is an eyesore.
"One of the things that Baton Rouge has going for it is a beautiful tree canopy," she said. "You can have a little bit (of moss) for a little while, but if you wait awhile, a little bit becomes a lot."
And once it's in place, a ball moss colony is difficult to uproot.
"There's no easy fix. ... Pulling this moss off of trees is a hell of a job," Turner said.
Getting rid of ball moss is laborious because it usually requires removing individual clumps by hand — five or six man-hours for one heavily infested crape myrtle, the nonprofit Baton Rouge Green estimated.
The organization has been getting numerous calls and emails about ball moss and wrote in a statement that it recommends hand-picking small amounts. Larger jobs may require a landscaping crew. Spraying a mixture of water and baking soda also can do the trick, but users must constantly shake the solution for it to work. Copper-based fungicides can be effective but require a professional to apply, Baton Rouge Green wrote.
But there's also reason to keep ball moss around. Baton Rouge Parks and Recreation staff point to an article by the Native Plant Society of Texas defending the moss.
"Some people think heavy infestations of ball moss will cause a tree to decline because leaves can’t get enough light. These ideas seem to be encouraged by tree trimmers, but the botanists I know think there is no evidence to support those fears," author Bill Ward wrote.
He said ball moss does have benefits.
“For one thing, ball moss fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere and eventually adds it to the soil,” Ward wrote. “For another thing, clumps of ball moss harbor little bugs which are food for several kinds of small birds."
Staff at BREC and East Baton Rouge Parish said they haven't fielded any calls about ball moss lately.