Bromeliads are a curious group of plants found throughout South, Central and parts of North America. There is just a single species found in the Old World – in Africa. They are unusual in appearance due to the absence of a visible stem and the tight circular arrangement of their leaves. In some species, the leaves have sharp, serrated edges while in other species the edges are smooth. Some are even reduced to moss-like strands. The leaf colour is quite variable as well, and different species can be green, grey, mauve, spotted or banded. In terms of flowers, these can be borne on long visible stalks in some species or hidden away in tight clusters within the leaf bracts in others. As you can tell, bromeliads come in a wide variety of forms.
What makes bromeliads particularly interesting in the tropics is that many of them have adapted to living off of the ground. Look at any large tree anywhere on the island and you are likely to see one or two species of bromeliads. The Queen’s Park Savannah’s samaan trees, for instance, are host to Aechmea aquilegia and several other smaller species. But the bromeliads are not feeding on the tree. They are merely using the tree as a support and will not steal nutrients from their host; the biological term for such plants is “epiphyte”. Some harm may come to the tree, however, if the sheer weight of the bromeliads growing on a branch happens to cause the branch to break.
While bromeliads get their nutrients via traditional means – absorbed through their roots and made through photosynthesis, some benefit from the decay of organic matter that gets trapped in their leaves, or from minerals dissolved in rain as it courses over the surface of the host.
Because of how the leaves are arranged, at the base of each leaf there is usually a small pool of water. In these pools, organic matter and airborne dust accumulates and this mixture slowly drains out and on to the roots, providing the bromeliad with both a supply of water and “fertiliser”.
What makes these epiphytic bromeliads so interesting is that these pools attract a range of animals, including snails, forest cockroaches and mosquito larvae, and these, in turn, can attract predators like snakes and tree frogs. Birds and several mammals also visit bromeliads to drink the water that has collected in their bracts.
As you can see, a colony of bromeliads can easily support a miniature ecosystem. In this manner, bromeliads contribute substantially to the biodiversity of a forest by creating micro-habitats in the canopy which would not exist otherwise.
All these organisms contribute further to the brew of nutrients in the bromeliad’s water tank when they die or from their waste products. Some bromeliads are also at home on the ground. The aforementioned Aechmea aquilegia, for example, is able to survive both on the ground and on trees and is common sight at mud volcanoes or near the seaside. But perhaps the best known example of a terrestrial bromeliad is probably in your kitchen right now.
Bromeliads are called “wild pines” in Trinidad and Tobago for good reason – the cultivated pineapple is in fact a member of the bromeliad family. This sweet, popular fruit originated from a wild species of bromeliad (Ananas sp) found in South America that was selectively bred for the characteristic we enjoy today. Bromeliads are also very popular ornamental plants largely because of the elaborate colours that some of the hybrid species possess.
There are many species of bromeliad that are known to grow in the wild in Trinidad and Tobago. Perhaps the most famous species is the large tank bromeliad (Glomeropitcairnia erectiflora) that grows on trees atop our tallest peaks such as El Tucuche.
The plants are well known for the vast quantity of water that can become trapped in their leaves (hence the name ‘tank’ bromeliad) and it is these tanks which are home to Trinidad’s endemic golden tree frog (Phyllodytes auratus), found nowhere else in the world except in these bromeliads in Trinidad.
The ping-wing or manicou fig that you may have eaten as a child is also a type of bromeliad (Bromelia plumieri). These terrestrial bromeliads produce an attractive cluster of sour-sweet fruits but they are protected by some serious spines! As the name implies, manicou and other animals may eat the fruit.
Yet another terrestrial bromeliad you probably see without realising it is the grass-like Pitcairnia integrifolia which usually grows on rocky outcrops.
You may have noticed them in areas like the Lady Young Road or on your way to Maracas Beach, particularly when they are in bloom as they produce a spray of bright orange flowers at this time.
So the next time you are enjoying a delicious pineapple chow, think of all the wonderfully varied bromeliads found in TT.
Let it reminds you of how wild bromeliads support an amazing wealth of wildlife both high up in the forest canopy and on the ground.
Do not remove those wild pines growing on your fruit trees unless you really need to. They are just another part of our amazing natural environment.
For more info on our natural environment contact the T&T Field Naturalists’ Club at email@example.com, our website at www.ttfnc.org, Facebook and YouTube pages.