What does the Spanish moss hanging from the branches of bald cypress trees in the Lousiana Bayou and the sweet, juicy flesh of the tropical pineapple have in common? Well, they’re both parts of the incredibly diverse Bromeliaceae family. Yeah, you read that right Spanish moss, a species of air plant, and pineapples are related!
The term “air plant” refers to the entirety of the Tillandsia genus of plants. These plants are highly specialized epiphytic, aerophytic, or lithophytic plants capable of rapidly absorbing moisture and nutrients in the atmosphere surrounding them through specialized structures called trichomes on the surface of their leaves. Thisunique adaptation provides Tillandsia a nearly limitless ability to inhabit niches in ecosystems that are not amenable to traditionally rooted plants.
While Tillandsia has the capability to grow roots, their sole purpose is to anchor the plant to whatever substrate it is growing on. The substrate could be a tree branch, the shifting sands of the desert, rock formations, or even on telephone wires when civilization encroaches upon their native range.
Tillandsia are native to tropical forests, subtropical forests, mountains, savannahs, deserts, grasslands, and Mediterranean scrub habitats that span a geographical range from southern Virginia to as far south as Argentina. The diversity of terrestrial biomes that Tillandsia inhabit is one of the driving factors that make Tillandsia one of the most diverse genera of plants.