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.
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.
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.”
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.)
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?