Cardinal Air Plant, Tillandsia

by Kyle Sweet, Superintendent Sanctuary Golf Course

The Cardinal Air Plant, otherwise referred to as Tillandsia, is one of Florida’s sixteen native bromeliads and is listed as a threatened species. It is native to the forests and mountains of Central and South America and the southern United States. It won’t take long to see that this air plant is abundant throughout the protected lands of Sanibel on many varieties of hardwoods.

The Cardinal Air Plant is an epiphyte, or air plant, usually growing on the trunk or branch of a tree. Air plants are not considered parasites, instead taking in nutrients and water from the air and whatever it collects in it leaves while doing no harm to its host. It can grow up to 18” tall and easily twice that when in bloom. It’s large, arching leaves are thick at the base and taper to a point at the tip. The leaf bases serve as reservoirs where water, dead insects and debris collect. Specialized cells in the plant absorb the captive water and nutrients and this small, wet “habitat” often serves as a home to frogs while attracting lizards and bird in search of a drink of water.

The Cardinal Air Plant is threatened due to the loss of habitat and illegal harvesting, but the biggest threat is an insect called the Mexican Bromeliad Weevil. Currently, there are no controls for this insect and there are no natural enemies either. Biological controls, which would be the first course of action have failed to date but research in this realm is continuing.

There are three distinct plants that carry the “Cardinal” name, each uniquely different. The three varieties are:

Tillandsia fasciculata var. fasciculat
Tillandsia fasciculate var. densispica
Tillandsia fasciculate var. clavispica

Photographed is the var. fasciculate, which is the by far the most common variety throughout the state of Florida. The other two varieties are seen much less and are isolated to the counties of Monroe and Miami Dade Counties.

Keep your eyes out for this uniquely southern air plant and if you can catch one in bloom with multi-colored flower spikes you’ll be glad you did! Air plants serve a very important purpose in our ecosystem and are highly protected. Please refrain from any removal of any air plants on our Sanctuary island.

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