Where When How — March/April 2017
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Native Flora Airplants
B Naqqi Manco

SPIKEY ROSETTES RESEMBLING THE tops of pineapples, sometimes with silvery fuzz, a twisted shape, or curlicue leaves, grow on trees and shrubs throughout the Turks & Caicos Islands. They are the air plants – not parasites, gathering only rain, fallen leaves, and dust to nurture themselves, and only using their host trees as a place to perch off the ground. But how do they get there?

There are five species of airplants (genus Tillandsia) native to the Turks & Caicos Islands. Locally called scorn-theground, village lore holds that these plants believe themselves to be better than other plants, and so they refuse to grow on the ground and use other plants to get to their lofty perches, which of course is quite an anthropomorphic parable! While many of the roughly 3500 species in the diverse bromeliad family produce juicy berries, or fused clusters of juicy berries, in the case of the favourite bromeliad of humans, the pineapple – the airplants generate dry pods with seeds attached to long silky hairs. These hairs allow the tiny seeds to float in the wind to new perches, where they can sprout. However, in order to grow to adulthood, the plantlets must be able to attach their tentacle-like roots to the bark of a tree or shrub. If they can’t do that, they will often fall to the ground, where they are likely to perish. But the silky hairs provide a remarkable insurance plan to the species that depend on them.

Serving as more than parachutes, the silky hairs are also a favourite material for use by birds for making nests and roosting structures. TCI’s Bahama woodstar hummingbirds line their tiny cup-shaped nests with the silk of Tillandsia seeds, as well as with strands of fluff from wild cotton and the bushy beard fur of the tall cactus. They cement these nests onto branches using spider’s silk, ensuring that even after they abandon their nests, these baby cradles remain to nurture a new progeny – baby airplants. But even more commonly, the common black and yellow bananaquit birds use airplant seeds to bind their roost nests to forks in shrub branches. Bananaquits, unlike most birds, build nests in which to sleep at night as well as to raise their young. Bananaquit roost nests are hollow spherical structures woven from dry stems and grasses, with downward-facing entrances along one side. In order to anchor these night nests to shrubs, they will tightly lash airplant seed hairs – with the seeds – between their nests and shrub branches. Even while the nest is occupied the seeds will sprout, providing additional camouflage to the nests until the resident birds make a new one elsewhere. By that time, the seedlings have had an opportunity to grip on to the shrub trunks. Perhaps it’s no wonder these plants have high opinions of themselves, since they have tricked birds, the quintessential fliers, into carrying them to their lofty lives as highrise residents.
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