Tillandsia is the most common bromeliad genus in Florida. The most common – and best-known – of the showy Tillandsia species here is Tillandsia fasciculata, the so-called Cardinal-Flowered Air Plant or Cardinal-Flowered Wild Pine. Three named varieties featuring minor anatomical differences have been recorded in the state, the most common being var. densispica. The species grows throughout South Florida and as far north as Volusia County on the East Coast and Pasco County on the Gulf side of the peninsula. One online source reports it growing as far north as Georgia. The species also grows in Central America, the West Indies and northern South America.
The common names refer to the inflorescence, or flower stalk, which in most forms is cardinal red from a distance. But the red parts aren’t flowers. Instead, they are bracts that protect the developing three-petaled tubular lavender flowers and probably also serve as a long-distance attractant for pollinators. Besides the red-bracted forms, some feature bicolored red and yellow bracts, and occasionally green-bracted forms are seen. The latter forms have white flowers.
The “air plant” part of one of the common name indicates that these are epiphytes, growing on a range of tree species. The “wild pine” refers to the fact that these plants resemble one of the best-known members of the bromeliad family, the pineapple (Ananas comosus).
The genus name Tillandsia was created by pioneering Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753, based on the large species Tillandsia utriculata, which is also native to Florida. The genus honors Elias Tillands (1640-1693), a Swedish physician and botanist who served as a professor at Abo, Finland, and catalogued the plants of that area in 1673. There is an oft-told tale about Tillands that probably has nothing to do with the naming of his eponymous plant genus but is still an amusing anecdote. As Dr. Daniel F. Austin tells it in his Florida Ethnobotany: “Tillands was so frightened of water that he would walk several miles around a lake rather than take a boat a few hundred feet across [it].” The genus Tillandsia, numbering 674 species, according to Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, extends from coastal Virginia and the southeastern United States all the way to northern Argentina and Chile. Of Florida’s 16 species of native bromeliads, tillandsias account for 12 of them. In addition, there are two named Tillandsia natural hybrids in the state.
Tillandsia fasciculata was named and described by Swedish botanist Olof Swartz in 1788. Swartz was a student of Carl Linnaeus’ son, also named Carl, at the University of Uppsala. Swartz’s species epithet for this bromeliad is from the Latin word fasciculus, meaning a “little bundle,” referring to the plant’s bundled basal rosette of leaves. The Latin root word for “bundle” is fascis, which, unfortunately, is also the source of the word “fascism.”
Despite its widespread distribution in Florida, Tillandsia fasciculata is classified as endangered by the state because it, like the larger Tillandsia utriculata and one or two other smaller native species, is being severely damaged by the invasive Mexican beetle Metamasius callizona.
The family Bromeliaceae, consisting of 3,277 species, is almost exclusively a New World group of plants, with a single species (Pitcairnia feliciana) growing in the West African country of Guinea. The family is based on the genus Bromelia created by Linnaeus in 1753 in Species Plantarum and named for Olaus Olai Bromelius (the Latinized name of Olof Ole Bromell, 1639-1705), a Swedish physician who, like other members of his profession at that time, studied botany as part of his formal training, according to Harry E. Luther and David H. Benzing in Native Bromeliads of Florida.
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