Today’s post is the answer to last week’s post, so if you haven’t yet taken a look at that, I suggest you do so now.
So, did you solve my little botany quiz? The correct answer is…
But wait a minute. Did you recognize all those plants? Going clockwise from the upper left corner, we have Spanish moss, a lovely orchid, a tropical bromeliad, and a pineapple.
Now do you know the answer?
Which plant doesn’t belong? It’s the orchid. Oh, I suppose you could have said that orchids, pineapples, and bromeliads are all tropical. I’ll give you partial credit for that answer, but isn’t Spanish moss also somewhat tropical? It sure doesn’t grow here in Colorado! (I took that photo in the lower Rio Grande valley, in southern Texas.)
At this point you might be quite confused. If you’ve ever seen pineapples growing, you should be able to see the similarity with our familiar houseplants. Their strap-like leaves form a rosette, and a stalk of flowers rises in the center, much like the pink flowers did in the other bromeliad. Eventually, the flowers each ripen into fruit that merge as they grow larger to become the juicy pineapple we buy at the market.
However, what about Spanish moss? Well, calling it “moss” is a misnomer. Sure, it looks sort of mossy, but it’s not a moss. (Mosses are in another category of plants altogether.) Botanists haven’t put these plants into the same family because of looks. Rather, they all have “inferior ovaries.” I bet they feel really awful about that, poor things.
Actually, the ovaries of a flowering plant are what we think of as fruit, and inferior refers to position, not quality. So they have nothing to be ashamed about.
And if you look closely at a very young Spanish moss plant, you can see it does look like other bromeliads. See?
I find bromeliads intriguing. Back in my freshman year of college, our professor introduced biology by expounding on his own research into the inter-relationships among bromeliads, Anopheles mosquitoes, and malaria.
Mosquitoes, including those of the genus Anopheles, breed in this miniature pond. When the adult females fly away to bite an infected person, they ingest the protozoan that causes malaria. And when they bite the next person, those protozoans are injected along with the mosquito’s saliva. Understanding the life cycle of these mosquito vectors is the first step to stopping the spread of this deadly disease.
Mosquitoes aren’t the only creatures to make bromeliads their home. Other insects, spiders, worms, and even tadpoles take advantage of this sheltered haven.
Not all bromeliads have their own water tank. Some live in the desert, where their thick leaves are adapted to drought conditions. Some have roots, and absorb nutrients from the ground (such as pineapples) while others are epiphytic, taking advantage of tall trees to lift them into the light, and using their roots just to anchor themselves to a branch. These plants depend on rainfall, dust, and debris for sustenance. The so-called “air plant” (Tillandsia sp.) is one example of an epiphytic bromeliad.
In fact, there are hundreds of bromeliad species, and new ones are still being discovered. That’s enough to keep a botanist fascinated for a lifetime.