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Giant Air Plant or Giant Wild Pine (pineapple family) – April

Tillandsia utriculata (Bromeliaceae)
Origin: Florida and the Caribbean south to Venezuela

giant-air-plant-320Epiphytes are plants which grow upon other plants, without taking any nourishment from them. Here at Selby Gardens we specialize in the study, conservation, and display of epiphytic plants, and here in Florida, people have daily opportunities to see epiphytes. The largest bromeliad to occur naturally in Florida, Tillandsia utriculata, has been a relatively common sight in live oak trees. Recent years have seen massive population losses around the state, caused by the Mexican bromeliad weevil, an exotic pest which was introduced here via the horticulture trade. The Fakahatchee Strand in particular, the richest area in Florida for epiphytic plant diversity, has seen up to a ninety percent reduction in their numbers of giant air plants.

Unlike most of the bromeliad species found in Florida (and most bromeliads in general,) Tillandsia utriculata is a solitary bromeliad, meaning it doesn’t “pup,” or produce offsets from the base and after setting seed the mother plant dies. Those bromeliad species that do produce offsets stand a better chance of surviving a weevil attack, as they have multiple buds and multiple chances to continue growing, flowering, and setting seed. A Tillandsia utriculata which has been attacked by a weevil, however, usually just dies.

Brom-Tillandsia-utriculata-flowers-320The Marie Selby Botanical Garden is proud to have teamed up with Naples Botanical Garden and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, in a heroic effort to save the giant air plants of the Strand. We have collected many of the more mature plants which showed no sign of weevil damage, and brought them back to the Gardens to be treated with insecticide, carefully monitored, and then grown to blooming size. Once the plant begins to produce seed, late in the year we are replacing them in the Fakahatchee, on the same trees from which we removed them. By this stage, the plants are too hardened for the weevil larvae to damage, and can release their seed into the wind. This will be a huge help in the survival of this special population of epiphytes, at least in the short-term. And the short-term is essential; systems seem to balance themselves out given enough time, but it doesn’t take long for a species to disappear forever.

We have several Tillandsia utriculata plants here at the Gardens occurring naturally. There is a nice labelled population in the Florida native plant area in the Subtropical Hardwood Hammock behind the Christy Payne Mansion. Many of them are currently in spike and will be flowering soon.

Text by David Troxell