Where When How — N/D 2017 - J/F 2018
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Native Flora Sharp Tongues
B Naqqi Manco

HIDDEN IN THE BUSH IN COMPLETELY UNPREDICTABLE CLUMPS IS THE TURKS AND CAICOS ISLANDS’ (TCI) largest member of the pineapple family, the giant tongue bromeliad Aechmea lingulata.

This species is widespread through the Caribbean region from The Bahamas to Trinidad and the Greater Antilles in between, but in the TCI it grows in only a few isolated clumps. Outgrowing its diminutive cousins by several feet, the giant tongue grows variously on boulders, tree trunks, and bedrock in some unexpected places. It can be encountered in the deep shade of the high thicket forest around a blue hole, notched into rock pockets on the side of a cave-gored ridge, or on limestone sheets ready to cascade down the side of the TCI’s highest hill. Wherever it grows, the giant tongue is impressive.

Each vase-like plant reaches over a metre high, and the clusters in which they grow can be several metres across. The leaves are surprisingly lush – broad, dusty blue-green, and scaled together at the base to form a water-collecting tube. The leaf edges are saw-toothed and completely capable of tearing open skin, making for a colony to avoid trying to penetrate. These leaves protect the plant’s resources, which it gathers on its own.

Most bromeliad giant tongues acquire little nutrients through the roots and instead make a pseudo “wastebasket soup” to drink from captured dead leaves steeped in leaf-channelled rainwater. Each vase can bud at the base to make new vases, and each vase will also bear a single flower stalk, about as tall as the leaves, during its life.

The flowers are stiff, compact, greenish white teardrop shapes with red tips, and they probably attract nectar feeding Saw-toothed edges on tongue-shaped leaves make the plant a hazard to penetrate birds and insects. They are followed by purple-tinged white berries, each bearing a sharp spine at the tip. Despite being related to pineapples, the fruit is insipidlyflavoured, probably most attractive to frugivorous birds.

The 20-30 tan seeds inside each fruit will grow anywhere they are deposited that has enough moisture, and they grow quickly to a full size. However, because there are few places in TCI that offer conditions lush and fertile enough to germinate the seeds, the clumps are rare and isolated.

It is most likely that existing populations have grown up from seeds fortunate enough to have been deposited by birds in exceptionally rainy years.

Indisputably, the plant is beautiful and architecturally appealing. However, its habit of storing humus tea in its vases makes it a potential mosquito breeding habitat, and so gardeners growing it may want to use a Bt biological mosquito larvicide in their plants’ cisterns. Of course, with mosquitoes eliminated, the plant’s sharp tongues may bite even harder!