I’ve four interesting plants growing on my trees and shrubs. They are Bromeliads, members of the pineapple family (Bromeliaceae). Often called Air Plants because they don’t require soil to thrive, my four are all members of the Genus Tillandsia. Florida’s native Air Plants are epiphytic meaning they live on other plants but do not take any food from them so they are not parasitic or harmful. They just use the plants or trees as support.
You’ve probably heard of Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) as it is often used in the floral industry to hold in moisture around planted displays. Despite the common name, it is not a moss at all and Spanish Moss does not even have any roots. This Air Plant has scaly stems that latch onto the host so it hangs down from the branches. It gets its water and nutrients from the air via the leaves that are covered with cup-like scales.
The blooms are tiny and green and easily missed. This Air Plant reproduces by seed dispersed by wind or via fragments carried off by birds.
Generally found on Cypress or Oak trees, mine covers a Ligustrum shrub, while not native to Florida, it certainly is providing a grand podium for the flowing strips of this Air Plant that call it home.
Along the truck of my pine trees I can always count on small masses of Ball Moss (Tillandsia recurvata).
In doing some research for this article, I come to find out that people want to kill it, apparently because they don’t like how it looks on their trees or they mistakenly believe it is harming the trees. Since it is epiphytic, it provides for itself, thus, no harm, no foul. It gets its moisture from rain, and can tolerate dry periods by becoming dormant. In order for it not to send out seeds, the articles I read that condemn this Air Plant recommend bagging it in plastic and throwing it in the trash. Seems a little rash for something that is benign and provides for native fauna.
Ball moss fixes nitrogen which in and of itself is a reason to keep it. It converts nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form that plants can use. Should it fall from its host, it will become fertilizer for other plants. Propagation is by wind dispersed seeds, or you can break apart clumps to start new plants. Use it as a decorative touch, tied to a decorative piece of wood or tree bark, or in an orchid basket. In this type of use, leave outside in the rain during the summer and bring indoors when temperatures start falling below freezing. Interestingly, this air plant will grow on telephone wires and is hearty to 20F.
Next up is Southern Needleleaf (Tillandsia setacea) which I acquired from a fellow member of my chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society. She brought a slew of these to share, taken from hurricane season branch trimming. I placed one on a branch in an oak tree and one in some sort of non-native cypress (before I knew!). It has bloomed and as I had hoped, it began to propagate on its own and is sprinkled throughout my trees now.
Now, to the wildlife part. What exactly do bromeliads do? They are important to our ecosystems as some of the larger ones accumulate water in their leaves, providing for the more petite of our fauna. Frogs, worms, insects and salamanders use them as drinking fountains and some hide in the leaves. Since many species of bromeliads have deep wells to collect rain, the water is available during times when it isn’t plentiful from other sources.
In my case, the ground-doves have used the southern needleleaf as a prefab nest on several occasions. Spiders and insects use both Spanish Moss and Ball Moss. Bats can use thicker sections of Spanish Moss as cover to rest during the daytime. And, you will find both of these Tillandsia spp. as components in many a bird nest. Although these varieties may have small nondescript flowers, they do provide interest in the beautiful wildlife garden, if for no other reason than the mystery of how they live on air.
Last, a recent (2018) addition to the landscape is the state threatened species called Northern Needleleaf (Tillandsia balbisiana). The threats are due to Mexican bromeliad weevil (Metamasius callizona) and habitat destruction. I suspect that this airplant, which landed in a Meyer Lemon tree and on several branches of a Winged Sumac, blew in with Hurricane Irma in 2017.
*This is an update of a tale originally published by Loret T. Setters on March 2, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.