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What’s in Bloom: Cardinal Air Plant

Tillandsia fasciculata (Bromeliaceae)

Cardinal air plant (pineapple family)

Origin: Southeastern U.S. to northern South America

cardinal-air-plant-320Florida is home to a large variety of epiphytic plant species; mostly orchids, ferns, and bromeliads. The most noticeable from the ground are probably the larger-growing silver tillandsias: a large solitary species (Tillandsia utriculata,) a small species which forms large, pendent clumps (Tillandsia usneoides, or “Spanish moss,”) and a large species which forms medium-sized  clumps – Tillandsia fasciculata, also known as the cardinal air plant. Tillandsia fasciculata and T. utriculata look similar to each other and can be hard to tell apart when they are in their vegetative stage. The easiest way to tell them apart is the “pup factor:” T. utriculata doesn’t form pups, rather it remains a solitary bromeliad until it blooms and dies. The cardinal air plant, however, pups at a relatively young age, so you can be sure that you’re looking at T. fasciculata if you’re looking at a clump of large silver bromeliads all connected at their base. It gets tricky when the Tillandsia in questionis solitary…is it T. utriculata, or is a T. fasciculata which hasn’t pupped yet? Tillandsia fasciculata tends to have narrower and more erect leaves, whereas T. utriculata has more arching leaves, which are wider at the base. The tank form of T. fasciculata appears more constricted, whereas T. utriculata is more wide open, like a mixing bowl.

Both species can share the same habitat, which only lends to the confusion. You will find cardinal air plant growing on trunks or limbs of trees which receive ample filtered light and sometimes full sun, in swamps, oak hammocks, and other humid, frost-free biomes. When in bloom, the two look completely different, and identification is easier. The cardinal air plant gets its name from its paddled inflorescence, which is thick and brightly colored red (there is an alba form which is all pale yellow to white), and held somewhat close to the tank and branching at the tip. The small flowers are purple. From a distance, the bromeliad in bloom looks almost like a red bird sitting in a silver nest. Tillandsia utriculata, on the other hand, produces a thin inflorescence many times taller than the plant itself, with thin branches all along it, and more of a yellow green color, with white flowers.

Florida’s Tillandsia species are currently under attack from a foreign pest, the Mexican bromeliad weevil. Tillandsia utriculata (also known as the giant air plant)is, at the moment, the species of greatest concern, although T. fasciculata is also affected by the pest. The reasoning here is once again the “pup factor:” the cardinal air plant pups and makes small colonies, meaning that a single plant has multiple tanks and buds. If a plant has five tanks and four are destroyed by weevil larvae, that leaves one tank still to grow to maturity, flower, and set seed. In the case of the T. utriculata, however, the plant has only one tank and one bud, therefore only one chance to pass along its genetics. In times of severe stress like these, the fact that the cardinal air plant evolved differently than the giant air plant in this regard may be what ensures its future survival in the wild here in Florida. Only time will tell.

Text by David Troxell

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