Great Balls of Moss!

Hold your thumb and forefinger a quarter inch apart: That's how close Plantation inventor-entrepreneur Jeff Kaplan has come to making it big. Time and time again.

Let's see. There was the time 20 years ago when Kaplan, now 40 years old, got into the video-rental business. This was before billionaire H. Wayne Huizenga built a mountain called Blockbuster right in the middle of the playing field and killed many of the mom-and-pop operations. Kaplan opened and sold about a dozen stores and considered chaining up to fight Blockbuster. But he never found the right partner, and, well, things just didn't work out. "I was 20 years old then. What did I know?"

Then there was the nonstinging styptic pencil, an indispensable tool for every man who shaves. Styptic pencils have been around for 100 years or more. Trouble was, they hurt. Kaplan came up with a new, pain-free formula that should have been the biggest thing since the electric razor. Unfortunately another inventor liked the idea a little too much, stole the formula, and marketed it as a liquid to circumvent Kaplan's patent. "I didn't make the patent narrow enough," he says, smiling and waving away his own naiveté, "and that's how he got it."

And who could forget the collapsible cereal box, which would have been wildly popular with apartment dwellers had stodgy cereal companies not nixed it? The boxes were perforated so that when half the cereal was gone, simply rip off the top portion and fold over a new flap, thereby saving precious storage space in cramped cupboards. "The problem was the cereal companies said people are lazy and they won't rip the boxes off, so that didn't take off," says Kaplan.

But let's not dwell on the past. Kaplan, who is given to wearing Tshirts and jeans and spends three days a week rummaging for treasures at the Swap Shop, is almost jumpy with creative energy. And he's onto something new, something big, something that will make him rich and South Florida a prettier place to live at the same time. The something is a remedy for Tillandsia recurvata, which is not a spinal alignment problem but an epiphyte, a plant that grows on trees. You know it as "ball moss," if you know it at all.

Botany lesson: Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), is the ethereal drapery that lends a timeless, genteel, Southern quality to trees it adorns. Ball moss is plain ugly. It's a dull, grayish green, and it grows in nest-sized clumps on just about anything that will sit still long enough, including telephone wires, fences, and trees. Heavily infested trees can be positively hairy with the stuff and are as visually appealing as a block of moldy cheese.

Look closely enough at almost any tree in South Florida, and you're almost sure to find one or two clumps of ball moss. It's ubiquitous, and not just here. Ball moss is uglying up the scenery as far west as Texas, as far north as southern Georgia, and as far south as Argentina.

The situation, however, is far graver than some trees that look like they've passed their expiration date. Kaplan believes ball moss is an insidious killer, attaching itself like so many Tribbles -- the little hairballs that took over the Starship Enterprise on that classic episode -- then slowly killing the host. The subject is left starved, denuded, and quite possibly ashamed of the way it looks.

This stunning revelation came to him one day while looking out the window of his condo. "Where I live when I moved in, there was a nice ficus tree," he says. "About a year later, it started dropping dead. I asked a landscaper what was wrong, and he showed me the ball moss. I pulled one off and took it to Home Depot and asked the guy, 'You got any sprays?' He says, 'That's an air plant. They're harmless.'"

How could they be harmless, Kaplan wondered, when every tree infested with them seemed to be dying? If they were harmless, wouldn't they be just as plentiful on healthy looking trees as on sickly ones? Why hadn't anyone taken notice?

Kaplan smelled a cover-up; or maybe it was a whiff of indifference. State agriculture officials had moved swiftly and decisively when citrus canker threatened a Florida cash crop, but no one seemed to give a rip that ornamental trees were dying. "What's happening is that over the years they've always said it is harmless; they have refused to look into it," he says.

If the establishment thinks ball moss is harmless, then it's time to fight the establishment, Kaplan concluded. So he brewed up a batch of herbicide, which he trademarked Epizine, and dosed an infested tree. The leaves dropped off, but so did the ball moss. A little fertilizer brought the leaves back, and the tree is now healthy and moss free, he says.

And he's embarked on a three-year campaign to convince anyone who will listen that ball moss is no harmless epiphyte; rather it is an epiphytic weed, attaching itself to and somehow stealing nutrients from a host tree. He dug up two studies that seemed to support his case: one published in Selbyana, The Journal of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in 1978; and the second from Forest Ecology and Management, published in 1983. The former dismissed the idea that ball moss was deriving food directly from trees; in other words it was not a parasite. It did raise the question that ball moss may be allelopathic, meaning it secretes some form of toxin that kills back the tree's leaves so the moss itself can get more sunlight. Attempting to bolster the theory, the authors of the latter study put a hunk of ball moss in a blender with a couple jiggers of distilled water, whirred it up, and tried to see if anything would germinate in the resulting cocktail. Nothing would.

Sinister indeed.

Of course science is an ongoing endeavor. Both studies suggest more work needs to be done to answer the question: ball moss, friend or foe? Kaplan maintains that the prevailing orthodoxy has quashed any interest in seeking the truth. "It's like saying Columbus discovered America," he says. "He didn't discover America, but it's in every book. People tend to get lazy, they don't want to fight the establishment."

Now Kaplan freely admits he is no botanist and all his evidence is of a commonsense nature. "I am going on what I see, what I dig up, and by talking to people in the business."

And botanists, some of whom chuckle knowingly at the mention of his name, think there's a perfectly good explanation for all this. "In the case of ball moss and Spanish moss, the moss is simply clinging to the bark of the tree," says Robert Black, a consumer horticultural specialist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "The only time you could have a problem with it is if you have enough ball moss on a tree that it would be intercepting the nutrients from the canopy of the tree that is recycled into the roots."

Really thick infestations of ball moss could prevent falling leaves from reaching the ground, where they are recovered as nutrients by the tree itself. But that's a concern only in trees that are sickly anyway, says Black. A moss covering is a symptom of ill health, not the cause. "Because the tree is not healthy, the canopy thins out, opens out and more light comes in. That is where the ball moss comes in," he says.

So it's a question of which came first, the ball moss or the dying tree. Kaplan is on one side of the equation, virtually the entire horticultural community on the other. And if they're all wrong and he's right, Kaplan is poised to roll out Epizine to an eager world. For now he's holding off on marketing it until he can get science to see things his way.

If that doesn't happen, well, he's working another deal to import and distribute carbonated milk in a can. It's called White Soda. "It's terrific," he says. "I had a company fly me some from Japan. It tastes like lemon-lime soda; it's clear, with a foamy head, but it's 100 percent milk."

Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address: [email protected]

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Bob Whitby