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Rare Rio Grande Valley native plant can thrive in cultivation

Rare Valley native epiphyte, Bailey's Ball Moss, blooms in spring. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Published in the McAllen Monitor, March 18, 2023

Story and photos by Anita Westervelt, Texas Master Naturalist

Bailey’s ball moss, Tillandsia baileyi, is native to the Rio Grande Valley and considered rare. It can be found in Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties, especially in old growth forests along the rivers and in undisturbed scrub brush.

A quiet grove of old Texas ebony trees is a likely habitat, too. Other native trees like honey mesquite, Adelia vaseyii and brasil may host this rare gem, too. Its habit is to grow in clumps, although it is a slow-growing plant.

Bailey's Ball Moss in a Vasey's adelia tree. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Despite its name, it is not a moss; mosses do not flower. It is an epiphyte, which is a plant that grows upon another plant but does not draw food nor moisture from its host. It is sometimes referred to as an air plant. In a manner of speaking, it does get nutrients from the air: it gets moisture from mist, fog and humidity. Dust from the air, leaves dropping from the tree and landing in the ball and rotting, leaves and other detritus blown into its mass by the wind, all break down into useful nutrients that feed the plant.

The plant reproduces with seeds that are blown by the wind. Moderate populations of ball moss are not harmful to healthy trees.

In spring, yellow stamen protrude from cylindrical lavender flowers that peak out of the basket-like weave at the tips of the bloom stalk. Epiphytes conceal insects that attract small birds. Hummingbirds draw nectar from the flowers.

Large clumps and smaller specimens are often found on the ground after having been dislodged from the host tree by the wind. The plants will not survive on the ground. Found plants can be collected and tossed into the crook of a tree of the finder’s choice.

A downed clump of Bailey's Ball Moss will not survive on the ground. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

We can help this species from becoming extinct by rescuing downed plants – to be safe, anchor the ball to its new host tree with garden twine or thin wire. During extended dry weather, it wouldn’t go amiss to spray the ball with water occasionally.

Rescued Bailey's Ball Moss tied to a Honey Mesquite branch. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

South Texas Border Chapter Texas Master Naturalist members will have Bailey’s ball moss that had become dislodged during wind events and other plants at an outreach booth and native plant sale during the 32nd Annual Rio Grande Valley Home and Garden Show at the McAllen Convention Center, March 31 through April 2. Chapter members will be on hand to discuss beneficial use of native plants in home landscaping and recommend native plants for pollinator and butterfly gardens.

Look for the green shirts at the Rio Grande Valley Home & Garden Show, March 31 - April 2, 2023, at the McAllen Convention Center. (Photo by Robert Hernandez)

In addition, Texas Master Naturalist experts will be speaking at the gardening stage during the three day event, providing PowerPoint presentations on the following subjects: nectar plants for all year blooms for a small garden plot; how native plants provide food and shelter for night-flying insects that in turn feed bats; how some of our most common annoying plants benefit native wildlife; friendly outdoor lighting options to minimize negative environment effects; and the care and feeding of a most unusual and beautiful native plant, the passion vine. A schedule of times is available at the outreach booth. Look for the green shirts.


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