An American Celebration!

January 28, 2010 Nick Daniel , Horticulture Specialist, Cactus & Succulent Collection

Vriesea fosteriana 'Red Chestnut' In July of this year, the Biennial of the Americas will be occurring here in Denver. It is a celebration of art, culture, and the Western Hemisphere in general. So this got me to thinking, what better way to celebrate the Biennial here at the Denver Botanic Gardens, than to celebrate the family Bromeliaceae. Bromeliaceae, or the Bromeliad family, deserves its recognition as the plants in this family, with one exception, only occur in the Americas. Bromeliads exhibit a plethora of different colors, forms and habits. You may be interested to know that bromeliads are some of the most recent plants to evolve and hence are still rapidly evolving. They fill almost every niche in almost every ecosystem from Southern North America to Southern South America. The sole member of the family that is not native to the Americas, is Pitcairnia feliciana which is native to Western Africa. It most likely arrived in Africa from South America through a mechanism called long-distance dispersal, and that truly is a long distance to travel! Bromeliaceae is broken into three subfamilies: Bromelioideae, Pitcairnioideae and Tillandsioideae. Members of all three subfamilies are well represented in our collection, many of which are on display in the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory. Now, of the three subfamilies, my favorite would have to be Tillandsioideae. It consists mostly of plants that many people have enduringly called the ‘airplants.’ The Tillandsia and their relatives are very thoroughly displayed in the Boettcher Tropical Conservatory from the obscure terrestrials, to the unique and elegant epiphytes for which the family is so well recognized. A very famous tillandsia that I’m confident almost everyone knows of is the famous ‘Spanish Moss.’ That’s right, it’s not at all a moss, but is one of the smallest bromeliads and goes by the name Tillandsia usneoides. The long, hair-like strands that you see are actually chains of hundreds of individuals and are capable of growing up to two inches a day! Many people believe that T. usneoides is a parasite, well, that is simply not true. As an epiphyte, it grows on trees only for support and takes no nutrients from the tree. Occasionally T. usneoides may accumulate in such great numbers that it breaks a dead limb off, or shades out some of the tree’s  leaves, but that is about the extent of the damage caused by this unique epiphyte. So now, next time you are in the American South, be sure to correct your travel companions when they point out that ‘parasitic moss.’ Bromeliaceae is easily my favorite plant family and with good reason. I really love them all: from the tank-forming Neoregelia spp. with their brilliant colors to the long, elegant chains of T. usneoides, they all have captured my heart and mind. Make sure to come in and see the family in all of its glory in the Boettcher Memorial Conservatory, and while you’re here, be sure to make comparisons of the different shapes, growth habits and colors exhibited by the beautiful bromeliads. As an added bonus, many bromeliads are in flower this time of year, so there is one more reason to stop in, defrost, and enjoy this uniquely American plant family.


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