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 The Amazing Airplants

South Florida is one of the fastest growing areas of development in the United States.  The habitats of plants and animals are being destroyed at an unprecedented rate. Especially at risk in recent years have been the marginal wetlands, marshy tidal areas, useless in their natural condition for building. These have been often indiscriminately filled and developed, resulting in the destruction of important biological communities. Scientists have discovered that such wetlands, especially those with well-developed Mangroves, are Important in that they supply much organic matter to the sea. Much of this organic debris, particularly the leaves of the Mangrove, forms the base of a food chain that nourishes the young of important reef fish species.

Tilandsia fasciculata Such development in the South Florida area has also eliminated the natural habitats of several species of air plant or Bromeliad. Interestingly, some of these now uncommon Floridian species are still relatively common here in the Bahamas where hopefully they will continue to thrive.

The family Bromeliaceae is widespread throughout South America and southern North America, and is best known for the pineapple. Columbus discovered the pineapple on his second voyage to the New World. Bahamian pineapples were once world-famous however the bulk of the world’s pineapples are now grown in Hawaii, where as recently as 1911 James Dole started to farm the first 12 acres of pineapple plantation. Our Bahamian air plants all belong to the genus Tillandsia, the largest genus with more species than any other. They are all epiphytes, growing on trees but not taking nourishment from them.

T. fasciculata (above), by far the most common species, is also known as the Stiff-leaved wild pine. A highly variable species, it may adorn trees In huge clumps. Early in the year the tiny violet flowers emerge from between the bracts of the robust branching flower stalk. In the Bahamas this species never occurs so densely as on the live oaks of Florida. The live oak has a deeply furrowed bark that is favoured by the seedlings of air plants. Although the live oak is found in the hammocks of the Everglades National Park of Florida, and also in the northern parts of Cuba, it does not occur in the Bahamas. No doubt it would thrive if introduced.

Tilandsia utriculata The Bahamas largest Bromeliad Is T. utriculata (left) whose leaves may be in excess of two feet long. Its large rosettes occur singly in many habitats.

Several species are more particular in their habitat requirements. Buttonwood is the favoured host tree of the Hoary air plant, T. pruinosa. These plants are covered with silvery moisture-absorbing scales. Their short twisted leaves extend from a bulbous base giving them the appearance of small greenish octopi.

Rare now in Florida is the interesting Banded wild pine T. flexuosa, the leaves of which spiral upwards from the base. This again is a plant with fairly specific habitat requirements. It prefers to grow on dead branches where many may be found in just one part of a particular tree.

The Red Mangrove is the preferred habitat of the Reflexed Wild Pine, T.

balbisiana. Growing like pruinosa from a bulbous base, the leaves are long and trailing.

Spanish Moss - Tilandsia usneoides

By far the most well known Bromeliad, apart from the pineapple, and probably also the most badly named is the Spanish Moss (left), which drapes Oaks, Pines, and Cypresses throughout the Southern States. Neither a moss, nor from Spain, the elongated filamentous stems and leaves are covered with minute scales that absorb nutrient-rich water washed down from the tree  upon which it is growing.

Although not found growing wild in the Bahamas, it has been introduced to some gardens in New Providence.  One garden in the Village Road area of Nassau has a tree festooned with this plant. I have also seen it along Bernard Road.

The rosettes of leaves may contain a considerable quantity of rainwater, which can be absorbed by the leaf bases. This water often forms a microhabitat for a great variety of aquatic animals.  In South and Central America, where air plants may reach great sizes, the assortment of animal life from one air plant may be truly amazing. Frogs, insect larvae, protozoa, algae, even crabs and fish may live their entire lives in the cup formed by the leaves of Bromeliads.

One of the largest species Vriesia imperialis may hold up to 12 gallons of water, sufficient for hundreds of small organisms. Sufficient in fact to slake the thirst of Man should he so require it. It is reported that the earliest explorers in the Everglades survived droughts by sipping front the cups of air plants. These unusual and attractive plants are often difficult to find, but are well worth the effort of the search. One problem that these plants have suffered from, apart from habitat destruction is collection. In Florida they have been collected and sold commercially, often as gifts to people who have no interest In them and cannot take care of them. They are nowadays sold across Britain and Europe on seashells as ornaments. No doubt in most instances they soon die. In such conditions they will certainly not flower and never be able to reproduce. 

To a limited extent collection is also being carried out in Nassau. With Bromeliads, as with orchids, this can be a dangerous practice. The collectors frequently take them simply became they are attractive with no thought for their rarity An endangered species which may be locally common can be wiped out very quickly in this way.

The people of the Bahamas must protect their diminishing flora and fauna in every way possible, and hope that the Bahamian Bromeliads do not go the same way as those of Florida, where as far back as 1932 Charles Torey Simpson wrote: “Looking back to the days when South Florida was a beautiful wilderness with magnificent wildlife, and then contemplating the wreck of today, it is enough to sicken the heart of a lover of Nature. If things go on here as in the past few years, this can only end in the destruction of all that is lovely and of value that Nature has bestowed on us

Prophetic words indeed!                                                                                                     © R. Attrill 2000