A Hardy Tillandsia That Deserves Our Respect

12962906743_db94d725b3_o.jpg

As epiphytes go, Tillandsia recuvata (a.k.a. ball moss) doesn’t have the best reputation. All too often it is seen as an unsightly pest of trees that needs to be removed. This could not be farther from the truth. This hardy air plant does no harm to the trees on which it grows. What’s more, its relationship with a specific group of bacteria means it is a major contributor to soil fertility. Today I would like to sing the praise of the indefatigable Tillandsia recuvata.

Tillandsia recuvata is native throughout an impressive chunk of the Americas, from the southern United States through to northern Argentina and Chile. Wherever temperatures rarely dip below freezing, T. recurvata can make an easy living. One of the most remarkable aspects of this species is the array of habitat types in which it grows. This hardy little air plant is equally at home in sub-tropical conditions as it is arid desert habitats. Its ability to tolerate heat, drought, and plenty of air pollution has led to its colonization of urban environments as well.

One of the keys to its success is the way in which T. recuvata handles photosynthesis. As is typical of the bromeliad family (Bromeliaceae), T. recuvata utilizes CAM photosynthesis. Instead of opening its stomata during the day, when high temperatures and baking sun would lead to unsustainable rates of water loss, T. recurvata opens its stomata at night, taking in CO2 while temperatures are more favorable. It then stores this CO2 as an organic acid that it can use later on the next day when the sun comes up. In doing so, T. recurvata can keep its stomata closed and save on water while still being able to synthesize the carbohydrates it needs.

2183823949_7b8fd0ec62_o.jpg

I think one of the main reasons T. recurvata doesn’t get the respect that many of its cousins receive is that it doesn’t put on a spectacular floral show when in bloom. Tiny purple to lavender petals just barely emerge from between bracts located a the tips of long flowers stalks. The flowers don’t last long and are quickly replaced by long, brown seed capsules. These capsules eventually burst open, releasing plenty of tiny seeds, each adorned with wispy filaments that help them take advantage of the slightest breeze. Though the seeds themselves are small and don’t show many adaptations for adhering to suitable substrates, I have found that those silky filaments tend to get matted up and stuck on whatever surface they land on. In this way, seeds at least have a chance to germinate on everything from twigs to power lines, and even other Tillandsias.

The reason this species earned the specific epithet ‘recurvata’ and the common name ‘ball moss’ has to do with both its growth habit and its propensity to grow on others of its own kind. Each leaf curls backward as it grows, giving individual plants a spherical shape. As more and more seedlings germinate on and around one another, these colonies can take on a massive, ball-like appearance. This has led many to classify this species as a parasite, however, this is not the case at all. It is wrongly assumed that these plants weaken the trees on which they grow and this is simply not the case.

Like many other epiphytes, T. recurvata likes a lot of sunlight. As such, plants tend to do better a the tops of trees or near the tips of branches. Certainly this can cause some degree of shading for the trees on which they grow, but this is insignificant considering how much a tree’s own branches and leaves shade those further down on the trunk. Also, T. recurvata are quick to move in on branches that have lost foliage or are already dead. This can often appear are is the plants have taken over the tree, causing it to die back. In reality, T. recurvata colonies are a merely a symptom of a tree already stressed by other factors. As the canopy starts to thin, more air plants are able to find suitable habitat for germination and growth. Trees covered in T. recurvata were already weak or dying, not the other way around.

In fact, evidence is showing that T. recurvata are actually an important source of nitrogen for the surrounding environment. Within their tissues, T. recurvata house specialized bacteria in the genus Pseudomonas, which are capable of fixing nitrogen directly from the atmosphere. In return for a place to live, these bacteria provide their air plant host with a nitrogen boost that would otherwise be unavailable. When T. recurvata detach from whatever they are growing on (something they frequently do in droves), they fall to the ground, rot, and enrich the soil with a shot of nitrogen. As such, these wonderful epiphytes are actually a boost to the growth of not only their hosts but many other plant species as well.

Tillandsia_recurvata_on_electricity_cables_Tamaulipas.jpg

Probably the most incredible feat of this species has been its conquest of the human environment. Throughout its range you can find T. recurvata thriving on man-made structures like power lines. For a species that gets all of its needs from the atmosphere, it is amazing how well T. recurvata is able to handle air pollution. Because it is so darn hardy, this air plant has caught the attention of more than one researcher. In fact, some are even looking at T. recurvata as a unique candidate for green roof construction in warmer climates.

All in all, this is one of the hardiest plants you are going to encounter in the Americas. One should look on at T. recurvata colonies with respect and admiration, not disgust and disdain. We fight species like this for all of the wrong reasons when in reality, we should be embracing them as both survivors and important components of ecosystem health. I hope this post has been able to do away with at least some of the misconceptions about this species. Three cheers for Tillandsia recurvata!

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

How Air Plants Drink

  Tillandsia tectorum

 Tillandsia tectorum

Air plants (genus Tillandsia) are remarkable organisms. All it takes is seeing one in person to understand why they have achieved rock start status in the horticulture trade. Unlike what we think of as a "traditional" plant lifestyle, most species of air plants live a life free of soil. Instead, they attach themselves to the limbs and trunks of trees as well as a plethora of other surfaces. 

Hay-Spanish-Moss-Paste-I-Agavepalo-Beard-Old-Plant-1675646.jpg

Living this way imposes some serious challenges. The biggest of these is the acquisition of water. Although air plants are fully capable of developing roots, these organs don't live very long and they are largely incapable of absorbing anything from the surrounding environment. The sole purpose of air plant roots is to anchor them to whatever they are growing on. How then do these plants function? How do they obtain water and nutrients? The answer to this lies in tiny structures called trichomes. 

Trichomes are what gives most air plants their silvery sheen. To fully appreciate how these marvelous structures work, one needs some serious magnification. A close inspection would reveal hollow, nail-shaped structures attached to the plant by a stem. Instead of absorbing water directly through the leaf tissues, these trichomes mediate the process and, in doing so, prevent the plant from losing more water than it gains. 

The trichomes themselves start off as living tissue. During development, however, they undergo programmed cell death, leaving them hollow. When any amount of moisture comes into contact with these trichomes, they immediately absorb that water, swelling up in the process. As they swell, they are stretched out flat along the surface of the leaf. This creates a tiny film of water between the trichomes and the rest of the leaf, which only facilitates the absorption of more water. 

Trichomes up close.  

Trichomes up close.  

Because the trichomes form a sort of conduit to the inside of the leaf, water and any nutrients dissolved within are free to move into the plant until the reach the spongy mesophyll cells inside. In this way, air plants get all of their water needs from precipitation and fog. Not all air plants have the same amount of trichomes either. In fact, trichome density can tell you a lot about the kind of environment a particular air plant calls home. 

Air_Plant_(Tillandsia_caput-medusae)_(6766707151).jpg

The fuzzier the plant looks, the drier the habitat it can tolerate. Take, for instance, one of the fuzziest air plants - Tillandsia tectorum. This species hails from extremely arid environments in the high elevation regions of Ecuador and Peru. This species mainly relies on passing clouds and fog for its moisture needs and thus requires lots of surface area to collect said water. Now contrast that with a species like Tillandsia bulbosa, which appears to have almost no trichome cover. This smoother looking species is native to humid low-land habitats where high humidity and frequent rain provide plenty of opportunities for a drink. 

Tillandsia_bulbosa_20090111.jpg

Absorbing water in this way would appear to have opened up a plethora of habitats for the genus Tillandsia. Air plants are tenacious plants and worthy of our admiration. One could learn a lot from their water savvy ways. 

upload.jpg

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

The Extraordinary Catasetum Orchids

Male  Catasetum osculatum

Male Catasetum osculatum

Orchids, in general, have perfect flowers in that they contain both male and female organs. However, in a family this large, exceptions to the rules are always around the corner. Take, for instance, orchids in the genus Catasetum. With something like 166 described species, this genus is rather unique in that individual plants produce either male or female flowers. What's more, the floral morphology of the individual sexes are so distinctly different from one another that some were originally described as distinct species. 

Female  Catasetum osculatum

Female Catasetum osculatum

In fact, it was Charles Darwin himself that first worked out that plants of the different sexes were indeed the same species. The genus Catasetum enthralled Darwin and he was able to procure many specimens from his friends for study. Resolving the distinct floral morphology wasn't his only contribution to our understanding of these orchids, he also described their rather unique pollination mechanism. The details of this process are so bizarre that Darwin was actually ridiculed by some scientists of the time. Yet again, Darwin was right. 

Catasetum longifolium

Catasetum longifolium

If having individual male and female plants wasn't strange enough for these orchids, the mechanism by which pollination is achieved is quite explosive... literally. The Catasetum orchids are pollinated by large Euglossine bees. Attracted to the male flowers by their alluring scent, the bees land on the lip and begin to probe the flower. Above the lip sits two hair-like structures. When a bee contacts these hairs, a structure containing sacs of pollen called a pollinia is launched downwards towards the bee. A sticky pad at the base ensures that once it hits the bee, it sticks tight. 

Male Catasetum flower in action. Taken from BBC's Kingdom of Plants.

Male Catasetum flower in action. Taken from BBC's Kingdom of Plants.

Bees soon learn that the male flowers are rather unpleasant places to visit so they set off in search of a meal that doesn't pummel them. This is quite possibly why the flowers of the individual sexes look so different from one another. As the bees visit the female flowers, the pollen sacs on their back slip into a perfect groove and thus pollination is achieved. 

Eulaema polychroma  visiting  Catasetum integerrimum

Eulaema polychroma visiting Catasetum integerrimum

The uniqueness of this reproductive strategy has earned the Catasetum orchids a place in the spotlight among botanists and horticulturists alike. It begs the question, how is sex determined in these orchids? Is it genetic or are there certain environmental factors that push the plant in either direction? As it turns out, light availability may be one of the most important cues for sex determination in Catasetum

31111938873_b2006358fc_o.jpg

A paper published back in 1991 found that there were interesting patterns of sex ratios for at least one species of Catasetum. Female plants were found more often in younger forests whereas the ratios approached an even 1:1 in older forests. What the researchers found was that plants are more likely to produce female flowers under open canopies and male flowers under closed canopies. In this instance, younger forests are more open than older, more mature forests, which may explain the patterns they found in the wild. It is possible that, because seed production is such a costly endeavor for plants, individuals with access to more light are better suited for female status. 

Catasetum macrocarpum

Catasetum macrocarpum

Aside from their odd reproductive habits, the ecology of these plants is also quite fascinating. Found throughout the New World tropics, Catasetum orchids live as epiphytes on the limbs and trunks of trees. Living in the canopy like this can be quite stressful and these orchids have evolved accordingly. For starters, they are deciduous. Most of the habitats in which they occur experience a dry season. As the rains fade, the plants will drop their leaves, leaving behind a dense cluster of green pseudobulbs. These bulbous structures serve as energy and water stores that will fuel growth as soon as the rains return. 

Catasetum silvestre in situ

Catasetum silvestre in situ

The canopy can also be low in vital nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. As is true for all orchids, Catasetum rely on an intimate partnership with special mychorrizal fungi to supplement these ingredients. Such partnerships are vital for germination and growth. However, the fungi that they partner with feed on dead wood, which is low in nitrogen. This has led to yet another intricate and highly specialized relationship for at least some members of this orchid genus. 

36793851562_606bc44817_o.jpg

Mature Catasetum are often found growing right out of arboreal ant nests. Those that aren't will often house entire ant colonies inside their hollowed out pseudobulbs. This will sometimes even happen in a greenhouse setting, much to the chagrin of many orchid growers. This partnership with ants is twofold. In setting up shop within the orchid or around its roots, the ants provide the plant with a vital source of nitrogen in the form of feces and other waste products. At the same time, the ants will viciously attack anything that may threaten their nest. In doing so, they keep many potential herbivores at bay.  

Female  Catasetum planiceps

Female Catasetum planiceps

To look upon a flowering Catasetum is quite remarkable. They truly are marvels of evolution and living proof that there seems to be no end to what orchids have done in the name of survival. Luckily for most of us, one doesn't have to travel to the jungles and scale a tree just to see one of these orchids up close. Their success in the horticultural trade means that most botanical gardens sport at least a species or two. If and when you do encounter a Catasetum, do yourself a favor and take time to admire it in all of its glory. You will be happy that you did. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] 

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

A Truly Bizarre Cactus From The Amazon

DN0Ia_SW4AIBjCB.jpg

When we think of cacti, we tend to think of dry deserts and sandy soils. Few of us would ever jump to the trunk of a tree, nestled in a humid rainforest, and experiencing periodic inundation. Yet, such a habitat is the hallmark of one of the world's most unique species of cactus - Selenicereus witii. In more ways than one, this species is truly aberrant.

Whereas epiphytic cacti aren't novel, the habits of S. witii surely push the limits of what we know about the entire cactus family. Despite having been discovered in 1899, little attention has been paid to this epiphytic cactus. What we do know comes from scant herbarium records and careful observation by a small handful of botanists.

S. witii is endemic to a region of central Amazonia and only grows in Igapó, or seasonally flooded, blackwater forests. It makes its living on the trunks of trees and its entire morphology seems particularly adapted to such a harsh lifestyle. Unlike most cacti, S. witii doesn't seem to bother with water storage. Instead, its stems grow completely appressed to the trunks of trees. Roots emerge from near the spine-bearing areoles and these help to anchor it in place. 

9714998740_596ee2ef55_b.jpg

Because they are often exposed to bright sunlight, the stems produce high amounts of chemical pigments called betalains. These act as sun block, protecting the sensitive photosynthetic machinery from too much radiation. These pigments also give the plant a deep red or purple color that really stands out against the trunks of trees. 

Like all members of this genus, S. witii produces absolutely stunning flowers. However, to see them, your best bet is to venture out at night. Flowers usually begin to open just after sundown and will be closed by morning. And my, what flowers they are! Individual blooms can be upwards of 27 cm long and 12.5 cm wide (10 in by 5 in)! They are also said to produce an intense fragrance. Much of their incredible length is a nectar tube that seems to be catered to a specific group of sphinx moths, whose proboscis is long enough to reach the nectar at the bottom.

Neococytius_cluentius_sjh.JPG

The seeds of S. witii are just as aberrant as the rest of the cactus. They are rather large and shaped like a kidney. Cross sections reveal that most of their size is devoted to hollow air chambers. Indeed, the seeds float like tiny pieces of cork when placed in water. This is likely an adaptation resulting from their preferred habitat.

As mentioned above, S. witii has only been found growing in seasonally flooded forests. What's more, plants only occur on the trunks of large trees right at the high water line. In fact, the highly appressed nature of its stems seems to suggest that this species can withstand periodic submergence in fast flowing water. The seeds must also cope with flooding and it is likely that their buoyant nature aids in seed dispersal during these periods. 

cactus seeds.JPG

All in all, this is one weird cactus. Although it isn't alone in its tropical epiphytic habit, it certainly takes the cake for being one of the most derived. Aside from a few publications, little attention has been given to this oddball. It would appear that the seasonal flooding of its preferred habitat has simply chased this cactus up into the trees, the environmental demands of which coaxed out strange but ingenious adaptations from its genome. The good news is that where it does occur, S. witii seems to grow in high numbers.

Photo Credit: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Further Reading: [1]

Floral Mucilage

Spend enough time around various Bromeliads and you will undoubtedly notice that some species have a rather gooey inflorescence. Indeed, floral mucilage is a well documented phenomenon within this family, with something like 30 species known to exhibit this trait. It is an odd thing to experience to say the least.

The goo takes on an interesting consistency. It reminds me a bit of finding frog spawn as a kid. Their brightly colored flowers erupt from this gooey coating upon maturity and the seeds of some species actually develop within the slimy coating. Needless to say, the presence of mucilage in these genera has generated some attention. Why do these plants do this?

floral mucilage.JPG

Some have suggested that it is a type of reward for visiting pollinators. Analysis of the goo revealed that it is 99% water and 1% carbohydrate matrix with no detectable sugars or any other biologically useful compounds. As such, it probably doesn't do much in the way of attracting or rewarding flower visitors. Another hypothesis is that it could offer antimicrobial properties. Bromeliads are most often found in warm, humid climates where fungi and bacteria can really do a number. Again, no antimicrobial compounds were discovered nor did the mucilage show any sort of growth inhibition when placed in bacterial cultures.

It is far more likely that the mucilage offers protection from hungry herbivores. Flowers are everything to a flowering plant. They are, after all, the sexual organs. They take a lot of energy to produce and are often brightly colored, making them prime targets for a meal. Anything that protects the flowers during development would be a boon for any species. Indeed, it appears that the mucilage acts as a physical barrier, protecting the developing flowers and seeds. One study found that flowers protected by mucilage received significantly less damage from weevils than those without mucilage.

The mucilage could also provide another benefit to Bromeliads. Because these plants rely on water stored in the middle of their rosette (the tank, as it is sometimes called), some species may also gain a nutritional benefit as well. Bromeliad flowers emerge from this central tank so anything that gets stuck in the mucilage may eventually end up decomposing in the water. Since nutrients are absorbed along with the water, this could be an added meal for the plant. To date, this has not been confirmed. More work is needed before we can say for sure.

Photo Credit: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

 

The Ghosts of Florida

 

There are ghosts haunting the Florida Everglades. I'm not talking about the metaphysical kind either. The ghosts I am talking about come in the form of a plant. A strange, mystical, and beautiful plant at that. Growing amongst things like panthers, snakes, palms, ferns, and more mosquitoes than I care to imagine are these rare and endangered plants which have been made famous by court cases, books, and even a Hollywood movie.

If you haven't guessed it by now, I am talking about the ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii). In what is one of Nicolas Cage's best onscreen roles (a close second to Raising Arizona), these orchids were made famous the world over. Based on the book "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean, the movie takes a lot of creative licenses with the story of these orchids.

Ghosts orchids are epiphytes. In Flordia, upwards of 80% of them can be found growing on the bark of pop ash trees (Fraxinus caroliniana). Finding them can be tricky unless you know what to look for. Ghost orchids belong to a group of orchids that have forgone leaf production. No, they are not parasites like Corallorhiza. Instead, they photosynthesize through their long, ambling roots. Pores along their length allow for gas exchange. For most of the year all you will ever see of a ghost is a tangle of roots growing among the moss and lichen on the bark of a tree. 

When a ghost decides to flower, it is easy to see where all the hype comes from. Large white flowers shoot out from the center of the roots, each one with its own twisted pair of tendrils on the lip, which are said to resemble the ghostly outline of a frog jumping through the air. Each flower is also equipped with a long nectar spur. This along with the white coloration and the fact that each flower is most fragrant at night points to the identity of the ghost orchids sole pollinator, the giant sphinx moth. It has a long proboscis that is exactly the length of that nectar spur. No other organism has what it takes to pollinate a ghost. 

The presence of the ghost orchid in southern Florida has everything to do with water. Predominantly a species of the Caribbean, ghost orchids cannot handle frost. In the Everglades, ghosts grow in and around topographical features known as sloughs. Sloughs are ditches that are filled with water for most of the year. Because water has a high specific heat, the sloughs keep the surrounding area cool in the summer and warm in the winter. When Florida experiences hard frosts, these sloughs never get below freezing. This means that these regions are essentially tropical. All these factors combine to make southern Florida the most northerly spot you will ever see a ghost (and many other plant species) growing in the continental United States. 

Sadly, ghost orchids are not doing so hot in the wild. The habitat they rely upon is disappearing at an alarming rate. If you have been to Florida in the last 100 years you can certainly understand. Over half of the Everglades have been drained and developed since 1900 with plenty more of it degraded beyond any hope of repair. Invasive species run amok for the same reasons that the native plants do so well, crowding out some of Florida's most unique flora and fauna. 

To add insult to injury, poaching of ghost orchids is serious business. Despite its difficulty in cultivation and the fact that most wild ghosts quickly die in captivity, there are those out there that will still pay insane prices to have a ghost in their collection. Nursery produced specimens are becoming more common, so with time this should alleviate some of that pressure. Still, there is no end to the senseless greed of some orchid fanatics. 

There is hope on the horizon. Researchers are starting to unlock some of the secret to ghost orchid reproduction. Plants are now being grown from seed in specialized labs. In time, this new generation of ghost orchids will be planted back into southern Florida in hopes of increasing population sizes. 

Photo Credits: Big Cypress National Preserve

Further Reading:
http://bit.ly/24NiqT9

http://bit.ly/1XTqh38

http://bit.ly/21jegSg

http://bit.ly/1PZlKJu