A Hardy Tillandsia That Deserves Our Respect

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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.

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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.

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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]

Maples, Epiphytes, and a Canopy Full of Goodies

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The forests of the Pacific Northwest are known for the grandeur. This region is home to one of the greatest temperate rainforests in the world. A hiker is both dwarfed and enveloped by greenery as soon as they hit the trail. One aspect of these forests that is readily apparent are the carpets of epiphytes that drape limbs and branches all the way up into the canopy. Their arboreal lifestyle is made possible by a combination of mild winters and plenty of precipitation. 

Weare frequently taught that the relationship between trees and their epiphytes are commensal - the epiphytes get a place to live and the trees are no worse for wear. However, there are a handful of trees native to the Pacific Northwest that are changing the way we think about the relationship between these organisms in temperate rainforests.

Though conifers dominate the Pacific Northwest landscape, plenty of broad leaved tree species abound. One of the most easily recognizable is the bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). Both its common and scientific names hint at its most distinguishing feature, its large leaves. Another striking feature of this tree are its epiphyte communities. Indeed, along with the vine maple (A. circinatum), these two tree species carry the greatest epiphyte to shoot biomass ratio in the entire forest. Numerous species of moss, liverworts, lichens, and ferns have been found growing on the bark and branches of these two species.

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Epiphyte loads are pretty intense. One study found that the average epiphyte crop of a bigleaf maple weighs around 78 lbs. (35.5 Kg). That is a lot of biomass living in the canopy! The trees seem just fine despite all of that extra weight. In fact, the relationship between bigleaf and vine maples and their epiphyte communities run far deeper than commensalism. Evidence accumulated over the last few decades has revealed that these maples are benefiting greatly from their epiphytic adornments.

Rainforests, both tropical and temperate, generally grow on poor soils. Lots of rain and plenty of biodiversity means that soils are quickly leached of valuable nutrients. Any boost a plant can get from its environment will have serious benefits for growth and survival. This is where the epiphytes come in. The richly textured mix of epiphytic plants greatly increase the surface area of any branch they live on. And all of that added surface area equates to more nooks and crannies for water and dust to get caught and accumulate.

When researchers investigated just how much of a nutrient load gets incorporated into these epiphyte communities, the results painted quite an impressive picture. On a single bigleaf maple, epiphyte leaf biomass was 4 times that of the host tree despite comprising less than 2% of the tree's above ground weight. All of that biomass equates to a massive canopy nutrient pool rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sodium. Much of these nutrients arrive in the form of dust-sized soil particles blowing around on the breeze. What's more, epiphytes act like sponges, soaking up and holding onto precious water well into the dry summer months.

Now its reasonable to think that nutrients and water tied up in epiphyte biomass would be unavailable to trees. Indeed, for many species, epiphytes may slow the rate at which nutrients fall to and enter into the soil. However, trees like bigleaf and vine maples appear to be tapping into these nutrient and water-rich epiphyte mats.

A subcanopy of vine maple ( Acer circinatum ) draped in epiphytes.

A subcanopy of vine maple (Acer circinatum) draped in epiphytes.

Both bigleaf and vine maples (as well as a handful of other tree species) are capable of producing canopy roots. Wherever the epiphyte load is thick enough, bundles of cells just under the bark awaken and begin growing roots. This is a common phenomenon in the tropics, however, the canopy roots of these temperate trees differ in that they are indistinguishable in form and function from subterranean roots.

Canopy roots significantly increase the amount of foraging an individual tree can do for precious water and nutrients. Additionally, it has been found that canopy roots of the bigleaf maple even go as far as to partner with mycorrhizal fungi, thus unlocking even more potential for nutrient and water gain. In the absence of soil nutrient and water pools, a small handful of trees in the Pacific Northwest have unlocked a massive pool of nutrients located above us in the canopy. Amazingly, it has been estimated that mature bigleaf and vine maples with well developed epiphyte communities may actually gain a substantial fraction of their water and nutrient needs via their canopy roots.

 

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

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

 

Apocynaceae Ant House

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The dogbane family, Apocynaceae, comes in many shapes, sizes, and lifestyles. From the open-field milkweeds we are most familiar with here in North America to the cactus-like Stapeliads of South Africa, it would seem that there is no end to the adaptive abilities of this family. Being an avid gardener both indoors and out, the diversity of Apocynaceae means that I can be surrounded by these plants year round. My endless quest to grow new and interesting houseplants was how I first came to know a genus within the family that I find quite fascinating. Today I would like to briefly introduce you to the Dischidia vines.

Bullate leaves help the vine clasp to the tree as well as house ant colonies.

Bullate leaves help the vine clasp to the tree as well as house ant colonies.

The genus Dischidia is native to tropical regions of China. Like its sister genus Hoya, these plants grow as epiphytic vines throughout the canopy of warm, humid forests. Though they are known quite well among those who enjoy collecting horticultural curiosities, Dischidia as a whole is relatively understudied. These odd vines do not attach themselves to trees via spines, adhesive pads, or tendrils. Instead, they utilize their imbricated leaves to grasp the bark of the trunks and branches they live upon.

The odd, bulb-like leaves of the urn vine ( Dischidia rafflesiana )

The odd, bulb-like leaves of the urn vine (Dischidia rafflesiana)

One thing we do know about this genus is that most species specialize in growing out of arboreal ant nests. Ant gardens, as they are referred to, offer a nutrient rich substrate for a variety of epiphytic plants around the world. What's more, the ants will visciously defend their nests and thus any plants growing within.

The flowers of   Dischidia ovata

The flowers of Dischidia ovata

Some species of Dischidia take this relationship with ants to another level. A handful of species including D. rafflesiana, D. complex, D. major, and D. vidalii produce what are called "bullate leaves." These leaves start out like any other leaf but after a while the edges stop growing. This causes the middle of the leaf to swell up like a blister. The edges then curl over and form a hollow chamber with a small entrance hole.

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These leaves are ant domatia and ant colonies quickly set up shop within the chambers. This provides ample defense for the plant but the relationship goes a little deeper. The plants produce a series of roots that crisscross the inside of the leaf chamber. As ant detritus builds up inside, the roots begin to extract nutrients. This is highly beneficial for an epiphytic plant as nutrients are often in short supply up in the canopy. In effect, the ants are paying rent in return for a place to live.

Growing these plants can take some time but the payoff is worth. They are fascinating to observe and certainly offer quite a conversation piece as guests marvel at their strange form.

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

Further Reading: [1]