Air plants in the wild aren’t the perfectly trimmed components of neatly arranged displays that we are used to seeing. Instead, they adorn trees and rocks, cacti and driftwood, growing freely and slowly over time, surviving with the help of the climate conditions.
Air plants are native to the West Indies, Mexico, Central America, and South America. Their favored habitat enjoys high heat, high humidity, and plenty of daylight hours. These tropical and subtropical conditions include desert, jungle, and rainforests. Some species, including Tillandsia Fasciculata, grow wild in the Florida Everglades. The most common air plant in the United States is probably Spanish Moss. It is often called beard plant and hangs in huge curtains from branches, creating a mythical sight.
What are Air Plants?
Air plants’ genus name is Tillandsia, and, as their colloquial name suggests, they rely heavily on air to thrive.
They are epiphytes; they anchor themselves to a surface using a short root system. That is the sole purpose of the roots, to keep them in place – unlike traditional plants that use their root system to draw water and nutrients from the soil.
Air plant leaves are covered with a series of tiny, hair-like structures called trichomes. Each is a minute reservoir to absorb necessary moisture and nutrients from the atmosphere and store it until the plant needs it. They are not parasitic and don’t drain anything from their host.
Air Plants in the Wild
Air plants are hardy and resilient; they tend to be larger than similar home-grown varieties as they don’t get pruned. Their native habitat dictates many of their characteristics and the care they need if attempting to grow them at home.
There are two primary types of air plants. Those native to hotter and humid regions tend to have glossy, green leaves and fewer trichomes. They are known as mesic Tillandsia and need lots of moisture and indirect light.
Xeric Tillandsia tend to have light gray or silver leaves like the T. Xerographica with more prominent trichomes; they are drought resistant and thrive in dryer climates. They are exceptionally hardy, need less water, and tolerate direct sunlight.
Examples of air plants in the wild and their environments:
There are around 660-species of air plants. They are adaptable plants; different species thrive in many diverse conditions.
Tillandsia tectorum grows in abundance high in The Andes in Ecuador or the deserts of Peru. It absorbs moisture from the mountain mist but survives well during periods of drought.
T. Latifolia grows in the Atacama Desert, where it often doesn’t anchor to anything. They blow freely across the landscape during high winds.
T. Ionantha enjoys semi-desert-like environments. Cloud forests provide perfect conditions; the plants attach themselves to bushes and absorb much of their required moisture from the low-lying mist.
T. Brachycaulos are native to Mexico, Venezuela, and Central America and prefer high humidity conditions with plenty of available moisture and indirect light. They grow naturally from the crooks and crevices of oak and pine trees, in generous forests, beneath the cover the leaf canopy provides.
T. Cacticola, as its name suggests, grows on cacti in Northern Peru. It is extremely hardy and tolerates long, dry periods. It loves bright conditions if attempting to grow indoors but needs less water than other varieties.
How do Air Plants Reproduce in the Wild?
Air plants reproduce much like other flowering plants, with the production of seeds and pollination.
They also produce small offset shoots close to their base. It usually occurs pre, during, or post-bloom; the new growths are called pups. Each plant has between 2-8 pups; they grow in clusters, and over time become replicas of the mother plant.
Pups grow even if the plant has no seeds to pollinate.
Most species that produce seeds rely on wildlife for pollination. Birds, bats, and insects native to the region are regular pollinators; seeds also carry on the wind.
In tropical rainforests, Tillandsia varieties such as Caput-Medusae and Streptophylla rely on moths, bees, ants, and hummingbirds to ensure procreation.
A few types of air plants are self-pollinators; some cross-pollinate with other plants in the same ecosystem. We have access to some exquisite hybrid plants created when different species pollinate with each other or with the help of wildlife.
Seed pods only form when flowers get pollinated. Otherwise, the plant only continues to reproduce pups for as long as the mother plant survives. Seed pollination guarantees the growth of separate, new life.
What Surfaces will Air Plants Grow on in the Wild?
Air plants are epiphytes; they absorb everything to survive from the atmosphere; therefore, they are not parasites and need nothing, except for shelter, from their host.
Because of this, Tillandsia anchor themselves to most substrates, living or inanimate. They grow in crevices on the crooks of trees, amongst rock formations, high on mountainous cliff faces, or cacti in the desert.
There are sightings of wild air plants growing on abandoned buildings, telegraph poles, and road signs. If the conditions are right, air plants will thrive on many hosts.
Do Air Plants Flower in the Wild?
Most air plants flower; it happens just once in their lifetime and signifies the peak of their life cycle.
Flowering is preceded by ‘blooming’; the period when the upper leaves change color. They gradually alter, often into subtle hues of red and pink.
This stage lasts days/weeks, even months, depending on the air plant variety. As the bloom fades, flowers appear. They are typically very vivid colors, bright reds, peach and oranges, lots of shocking pinks, purple, and violet.
Most flowers are funnel, tubed-shaped. It is to protect the internal seeds from the elements. Once fully formed, they are scattered on the wind or carried away by pollinators.
Spanish Moss – Tillandsia Usneoides
If you haven’t been lucky enough to see growing Spanish moss in person, you will probably have seen pictures of it.
Don’t be confused by the name; it isn’t moss. It is an epiphyte, like air plants; it is there to decorate the tree and take nothing from it.
It grows on the largest trees and is most prevalent in southern regions. The long strands reach lengths of up to 20ft. draped across branches. The sight somehow looks both magical and somewhat eerie.
Some people think that Spanish moss causes the declination of the tree. It cannot be true; the plant extracts nothing from the tree or the soil that holds its root system. It would appear the plant prefers to grow on older trees showing fatigue; maybe to mask the signs of aging?
Air plants in the wild prove their resilient nature by thriving in inhospitable conditions and climates. Their ability to grow even during periods of neglect is why their popularity as house plants is currently growing exponentially.