By Liz Gandy
In early December 2016, Selby Gardens’ Director of Botany, Bruce Holst, led a team for a two-day trip through the mud, water and raw beauty of Fakahatchee Strand State Park to continue a critical conservation project in Southwest Florida.
With staff from botany and horticulture, volunteer photographer Wade Collier, long time Research Associate David Benzing, New College Associate Professor Brad Oberle, New College student Race Stryker, Dr. Teresa Cooper, Naples Botanical Garden Assistant Director Chad Washburn and horticultural staff and Fakahatchee Park staff and volunteers, participants were able to continue monitoring of an epiphytic bromeliad species in danger of exirpation, as well as return about 30 giant air plants back to the park to disperse their seed and collect data on seedling recruitment from giant air plants previously returned.
This project began in early 2014, when staff from Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in southwest Florida urgently requested help from both Selby and Naples Botanical Garden to help them save one of their epiphytic bromeliad species from extirpation. An introduced insect, the Mexican bromeliad weevil, was infesting and killing Tillandsia utriculata or giant air plants at an alarming rate, reducing a monitored population near the main park drive by over 700 plants in the span of three years. The two botanical gardens were able to help by removing the remaining 100 or so giant air plants from the park and keeping them safe from weevil infestation in greenhouse conditions until the plants matured to bloom and produce fruit. Blooming only once before dying, the plants would be returned to the park to disperse their seeds naturally and preserve the population. Since removing the plants, Selby Gardens staff and volunteers along with Naples Botanical Garden staff have returned to Fakahatchee Strand every fall to replace the fruiting giant air plants back onto the trees from which they were removed.
Unfortunately, the bromeliad weevil has turned its voracious appetite on another large and fleshy bromeliad, Guzmania monostachia. Once numbering in the millions, the former dense groupings of Guzmania have been greatly reduced. Together with bromeliad researcher, Dr. Teresa Cooper and park biologist Mike Owen, Selby Gardens staff are now assisting with monitoring Guzmania populations in the park as well as ex situ conservation of Guzmania plants in the gardens’ greenhouses.
While the Guzmania populations are still greatly reduced, several plants with maturing seed capsules were found along with many of the plants recorded last year still alive. Monitoring of giant air plants replaced in previous years found hundreds of seedlings that have germinated near parent plants. New this year, many of the fruiting giant air plants began to release their seeds early while still in the greenhouse. The seeds had to be collected in hopes of dispersing them at the park. There is no well established method for large scale dispersal of epiphytic bromeliad seeds which are typically wind or water dispersed so after a little thinking outside the box, it was decided to try an old tool in a new way. Once the parent plants were replaced in a tree, a battery powered leaf blower was used to blow the loose seeds into the air to be carried by the wind to nearby trees. This novel technique appeared very effective at dispersing seeds and will likely be used again in the continuing effort to provide the best chance for survival of Florida’s native bromeliads.