Plant Profile: Tillandsias

By Craig Huegel

Reprinted from The Understory, May–June 1995

Illustration © Cathy Vogelsong

Bromeliads are the mainstay of many cultivated Florida landscapes. Their attractive leaves and flowers add to the tropical look that seems so prevalent here. But despite our interest in this group, Floridians are mostly unaware of the many native bromeliads that grace our natural landscapes.

Often lumped together as air plants, our native bromeliads all belong to the genus Tillandsia. Tillandsias are closely related to the pineapple, but all of our native species are epiphytic. Epiphytes attach themselves to trees, rocks, or other above-ground surfaces by strong specialized roots, but they receive no nourishment from their "host." This is especially obvious when you see certain species attached to inorganic surfaces such as telephone wires. The commonly-held belief that certain air plants harm their host and should be removed to protect them has no basis in fact.

Bromeliads, certain orchids, and other epiphytes do not feed on air, however. Their specialized roots are extremely effective at absorbing water and nutrients that contact them, especially during rain. Nutrients dissolved in the rain water are dilute, but the plants are adapted to low nutrient levels and cannot tolerate ;normal fertilization.

All of the Tillandsias share certain characteristics. For one, they are flowering plants. The flowers have three petals and three sepals and range in colors from yellowish-green to violet. Most species have flowers arranged in spikes and their leaves are thick and quill-like. The exceptions are Spanish and ball moss, described below. The seeds ripen inside the rounded capsules and are equipped with downy "wings" that enable them to float on the air currents far from the parent plant. The seeds become trapped in the crevices of rough-barked trees where they sprout and begin the life cycle again.

The following is a listing of most of the Tillandsias found in the Tampa Bay area. All of them, with exceptions of Spanish and ball moss, are listed as either threatened or commercially exploited species in Florida and are protected. Most other species are native only to South Florida and are limited by cold temperature.

Wild pine (T. setacea) (illustration above). The slender leaves of this species are 4-12 inches long and resemble pine needles in appearance. When grown in the shade they are dark green, but sunlight turns them a reddish bronze. If you have been to the Fakahatchee swamp, you have seen this Tillandsia there attached to cypress and pond apple trees. Wild pine occurs as far north as Ocala, but it is found primarily in south Florida wetlands. Its spike of purple flowers is no longer than its leaves.

Bartram's air plant (T. bartrami). This species has been verified in Hillsborough, and all counties north of us, but it has not been found in Pinellas. This is a species native to moist woods. It has straight, quill-like leaves, characteristic of many of the species, but its leaves are long (up to two feet) and arise from a dense basal rosette.

Giant air plant/Cardinal wild pine (T. fasiculata). This common species occurs throughout central and south Florida in wetland and upland forests, although most commonly in cypress swamps. The long (up to two feet) bluish-green leaves are slender and tapering. The inflorescence consists of a cluster of flowering spikes, each bearing numerous red to yellow bracts. The flowers inside are violet.

Illustration © Cathy Vogelsong Spanish moss (T. usneoides) (illustration right). Common throughout Florida and the coastal Southeast, this is a species of moist hammock forests where it attaches itself high in the canopy. Spanish moss is characterized by its silvery, yarn-like leaves that hook together to form wispy strands up to 100 feet long. This plant was once widely used for mattress stuffing, but its commercial uses gave way to modern synthetic fibers. It remains, however, the symbol of the Deep South. [illustration right]

Ball moss (T. recurvata). This species is a familiar plant to most homeowners throughout Florida. Ball moss has thread-like leaves and small inconspicuous flowers that form at the point where the leaves attach to the stem. As its name suggests, it forms bunches or balls instead of the streamers seen in its close cousin, Spanish moss. Although often mistakenly viewed as a pest, ball moss is not harmful to the trees it attaches to and does not have to be removed to keep them healthy.

Published on  06.01.2013