Trashbaskets in the Trees

28 Jul

Southern Needleleaf

Tillandsia setacea


Trashbaskets in the Trees

John and George decided to beat the heat yesterday by taking to the shady hammock at Rocky Point Hammock in Stuart, trading blazing sun for deep woods mosquitoes.  But well worth it to see a beautiful old well preserved hammock bustin’ with botanical diversity.  A strongly suggested destination (if you can tolerate the mosquitoes).

Among the joys is a Bromeliad called Tillandsia setacea, Southern Needleleaf.   Most of the Tillandsia species, including Spanish Moss, familiar to Floridians have variably curled leaves.  But Southern Needleleaf divergently has comparatively straight clustered leaves reminiscent of knitting needles.

Tillandsia setacea foliage (by JB)

Tillandsia setacea foliage (by JB)

Beyond knitting, the leaves remind me of the roots on a beautiful Orchid I used to see occasionally, Grammatophyllum scriptum, named long ago and far away for its flowers with mysterious scripts.      Grammatophyllum scriptum is what’s called a trash-basket epiphyte.  TBE’s have roots and/or leaves growing upward like a sea urchin quills to capture debris either to serve directly in a built-in compost bin, or indirectly  to foster symbiotic ants.

Grammatophyllum with trash-basket roots (from laspalmas.ns)

Grammatophyllum with trash-basket roots (from laspalmas.ns)

I wonder if Southern Needleleaf is a TBE.  (Even if not all the leaves point upward.)  Interestingly and maybe relevantly, if there is a Southern Needleleaf of course there must be a Northern Needleleaf.  There is, and Northern Needleleaf (T. balbisiana) reportedly has symbiotic ants among its swollen leaf bases.  The ants get a home, and the Needleleaf gets nasty ant guards and presumably ant-fertilizer.  So then it isn’t such a broad stretch from NNL and symbiotic ants to SNL having its own trash-basket shenanigans goin’ on.  But let me be clear—I pulled that idea out of the air; it is not “fact.”

Northern Needleleaf with swollen base, the base reportedly sometimes home to symbiotic ants. (JB)

Northern Needleleaf with swollen base, the base reportedly sometimes home to symbiotic ants. (JB)

And while I’m making it up,  Southern Needleleaf has beautiful delicate violet flowers.  What pollinator would visit that blossom?  It is remarkable how little is known about the natural history of Florida Tillandsias!  The flower looks like something a hummingbird might enjoy.  Would sure love to know!  What else could probe that long narrow tube? (Well, yes, a moth could, but that does not otherwise have the look of a moth flower.)

Southern Needleleaf flower (JB)

Southern Needleleaf flowers (JB)

So here is a suggestion for Bromeliad enthusiasts.  Next time you see a Southern Needleleaf pretending to be a tree-dwelling Sea Urchin, climb up and poke your finger into the base to  see if any biting ants come forth to defend my theory.  Let me know, ok?


Posted by on July 28, 2013 in Southern Needleleaf


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6 responses to “Trashbaskets in the Trees

  1. SmallHouseBigGarden

    July 29, 2013 at 12:29 am

    Great as always!
    I stole one of these from the cypress tree growing in my mother’s yard. I repositioned it in my bauhinia tree where it lived for over a year. Sadly it must have blown away, though because one day it was mysteriously gone!

    • George Rogers

      July 29, 2013 at 9:37 am

      Yes, and a sad loss. Probably takes those little porcupines a good long while to grab tightly.

  2. Mary Hart

    July 29, 2013 at 3:27 am

    This is definitely an encouragement to divergent thinking when trying to extend knowledge about plant adaptations!

  3. George Rogers

    July 29, 2013 at 9:37 am

    Well, probably too divergent. But crazy thinking keeps a person off of committees. (And your comment is pure diplomatic genius.)

  4. Steve Schwartzman

    July 29, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    It’s good to learn about another Tillandsia. We have two species in central Texas, ball moss (quite common) and Spanish moss (less common).

    • George Rogers

      July 30, 2013 at 7:14 am

      Thanks for broadening the picture. I had wondered what Tillandsias might be around the Gulf and into Texas.


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