Florida is home to 16 species of native bromeliads, six of which occur naturally in Central Florida and enrich our natural places with their beauty and use for wildlife.
These often overseen but fascinating plants are primarily epiphytic (plants that grow on branches of trees and shrubs) and do not absorb their nutrients through roots, as they are either entirely absent or only serve the purpose of anchoring the plant to a host, hence the name “air plants.” Instead, all of Florida’s native bromeliads obtain their moisture and nutrients through their leaves via cells with hair-like structures, called trichomes (see photo of a Tillandsia utriculata seedling, 25X magnification. Notice the clearly visible white trichomes).
Bromeliads have a special ecological role as a habitat for wildlife, including insects and amphibians. Additionally, two species in Central Florida are commonly called tank bromeliads (Tillandsia utriculata and Tillandsia fasciculata) as they are an important water source for birds and amphibians. Another term for these water sources provided by plants is phytotelma.
One species of bromeliad that most people are familiar with is Spanish moss. This iconic plant that stands symbolically for the South actually got its Latin name from a completely different life-form – a lichen! The botanical name for Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides, translates into “resembling Usnea,” which is the genus of beard lichens which are easily confused with the famous bromeliad (see picture of the beard lichen Usnea trichodea, hanging from branches of a dead Florida Privet on the ELC campus).
Like its relatives, Spanish moss creates habitat for insects, but it differs from these in that it is a very important source of nesting material for birds like warblers or orioles.
Don’t let anybody tell you that bromeliads parasitize trees and shrubs. They do not hurt or damage their hosts in any way (and neither do lichens!). If you see a lot of bromeliads on a sick or dying tree, this is due to the fact that the bromeliads are taking advantage of the increased light through the canopy of already sick trees that have lost many of their leaves, allowing the bromeliads to reproduce prolifically (see picture).
Visit the Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach to learn more about wild Florida on one of our kayak trips through the mangroves, or become a member and join us on our members-only field trips!