I photographed this air plant (above, click on image for a detailed view) in the Virgin Islands.  Air plants (Tillandsia) are common in Central America and the northern parts of South America and Southeastern United States and are native to Florida.

There are over 650 known species of air plants (not counting hybrids).  Although, Tillandsia grow in deserts and freezing climates, the highest population of air plants can be found in tropical jungles and open woodlands where mist or rainfall is present for year-round.

Air plants have evolved to obtain all of their moisture and nutrients through their leaves… from rain, mist, dust, and minerals dissolved in water flowing down leaves and branches.  Tillandsia leaves are covered with tiny suction scales, called trichomes.  These trichomes capture moisture and close when the plant has enough. As the plant dries the trichomes open.

None or very minimal amounts of water or nutrients are absorbed through the root system.  Rather, the root system’s primary purpose is to anchor the plant to tree branches, rocks, cacti, etc. (see close-up image above, right). The wire-like system of roots securely holds the plant. Air plants are not parasitic and the roots do not harm the tree or cactus in any way.

The evolution of the Tillandsia, to survive without soil or water-absorbing roots, gives them a distinct advantage over other plants.  Air plants can survive by clinging to trees, rocks, cliffs and cacti high above the competition of the myriad plants on the ground.

Stay tuned for information on air plant climatic needs; color; reproduction; and flowering.

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All images and content copyright Jeffrey Schneider of JAMES Modern Terrariums 2009.