February Plant of the Month – Tillandsia

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Thank you to Greg Aizlewood for this informative note on Tillandsias.


What is a Tillandsia? Seems a logical question but not always that easy to answer and there is a lot of information out there that can at times be confusing.  They are in fact a group of plants that belong to the Bromeliad family. Tillandsias are part of a subfamily in which all the known plants have smooth edge leaf margins. The genus was named by Carolus Linnaeus in honour of Elias Tillands a botanist from Finland.

Tillandsias are native to southern USA and all South America excluding the extreme south of Argentina. Some species inhabit the dry arid areas, others can be found in dense rain forest areas, while some can be found clinging to the vertical rock faces or attached to the native trees in sparse bushland. Most varieties can be found in trees growing alongside other epiphytes where they form large colonies occupying large portions of the trees limbs. Those species found in desert regions also seem to form clumps and thereby create an Eco climate that plays a large part in ensuring survival in the testing conditions. The large tank type Tillandsias seem to be single specimens or groups of two or three rather than clumping however they can occupy large tracts of land.

Some plants can be found flourishing on sandy tracts close to the ocean while others have adapted to the rarefied air conditions at altitudes of 3000meters or more.

All Tillandsias do flower and have the ability to produce seed. The amount of seed pods born by the plants varies dramatically; some produce one only while others that do not produce vegetative offsets have large quantities. The flowers can be singular and as small as 5mm in diameter with green petals as seen on T. usneoides (Spanish Moss) or as large as 20mm in diameter and part of a1.5m high inflorescence with multi-bracts which produce a large quantity of flowers . Petal colours vary from various shades of purple, yellow, brown and, green to white which are considered rare in some species. The leaves of individual species which inhabit the forest areas are generally dark green and thin or in some cases green and wide with trichomes (white scurf) evident on both sides of the leaf. Those that inhabit the  dryer areas tend to have leaves that resemble those of succulents (squat and thick) with a generous coating of trichomes covering the entire leaf.

Epiphytic (able to grow without soil) Tillandsias use a process called “CAM” respiration to provide essential moisture and nutrition.  This process allows the plant to uptake carbon dioxide through the trichomes on the leaf during the night thereby avoiding carbon uptake during the heat of the day when moisture loss cannot be effectively replaced because they have no ground roots. Terrestrial Tillandsias can however replace the moisture loss during daily carbon uptake via the ground roots that are in contact with moist substrate.

Now let’s look at some of the plants which inhabit the most northern range of the Tillandsia genus. A portion of the population which is endemic to this area are the grass like species of the southern states of USA and Mexico. The grass like tillandsias do not receive the adulation of some of their illustrious cousins yet when given the chance to clump, and supplied adequate nutrition in favourable light these plants can produce some spectacular results.

Tillandsia bartramii. This species extends from an area north of Kissimmee in Florida to several states in Mexico. It inhabits lowland forests in shaded or partly sunny positions and flowers in May.  The plant has a clumping habit and can be found in large colonies which provide an impressive display when in flower. In good light the leaf end turn bright red.

Tillandsia simulata. T. simulata was considered to be a synonym of T. bartramii but was resurrected to separate species status after extensive research by Sue Gardner in 1982. This species is endemic to Florida mainly south of Kissimmee and differs from T. bartramii in the leaf shape, colourization and length. T. simulata is taller and tends to prefer clumping prior to flowering which is especially evident in plants grown from seed. The inflorescence is red in colour with contrasting purple flower petals. Makes an attractive specimen mounted on wood.

Tillandsia Xfloridana. A natural hybrid between T. fasciculate var densispica and T bartramii which is native to central Florida.  This plant varies in location from specimens which resemble either parents to those which have features that are predominantly common to one parent only. The plant has a clumping habit and makes an attractive whether in flower or not.

Tillandsia setacea. This grass like species also reside in Florida’s more humid areas in the swamp or marsh lands. They attach themselves to the trunks of Oak and Cypress trees and form into large clumps that in strong light take on bright red extremities to the foliage.  The contrast between red foliage and white flowers can be quite soothing to the eye. This species adapts well to mounting on wood or rock.

Tillandsia juncea. T. juncea is widely distributed throughout most countries in Central America. It can be found attached to trees in sparse woodlands, thorny thickets, and coastal plains. T. juncea varies dramatically in size from location to location. The inflorescence of this species is the most striking because of the triangular shape and the large purple petals on the flowers. The grey or silver form grows to over 300mm tall and also has a clumping habit whereas the green short leaved form produces bright red leaf extremities when grown in strong light.  The offsets on this form are produced on stolons. Either form grows and flowers when mounted on wood or planted in well drained substrate of either 20mm gravel or similar size bark mix.

There are other grasslike species of tillandsia but time and space does not allow for the inclusion at this time. As previously stated these plants are not as popular as some others probably because they do not have the wow factor. However, with a little imagination, and some thought to culture who knows what you can produce.

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