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What’s Blooming in Paradise: Giant airplant a protected native plant

By Staff | Nov 18, 2015

Plant Subject: Giant Airplant (Tillandsia utriculata)

First impression: Wow, such dramatic spike in stature, but no flowers. The bloom resembles a small tree, and the plant is reminiscent of an art nouveau vase, with its leaves arranged like a rosette. What tenacity to hang on at the top of the trees and in bushes. I am drawn to the tall architecturally designed stem dancing amongst the tree tops. You can watch this gorgeous native Airplant skyscraping in full bloom at the Botanical Gardens of the Sanibel Moorings.

Upon further investigation: Tillandsia can easily be confused with over 550 species of epiphytic and terrestrial herbs to choose from. Our star is one of our native tillansia, which have been diminishing in numbers instead of increasing. Illegal collecting and a hungry weevil are some of the reasons we can’t admire them like we used to.

You may first notice giant airplane when you’re admiring a tree. Most tillansia are also called air plants but, we know they are epiphytes. Epiphytes sit on top of their selected companions aka host plant. A tillansia obtains moisture and run off nutrients from their host and in no way harms them.

Giant airplane, just with the name, your mind can conjure up a picture of tropical and jungle fauna. It has the look of our garden bromeliads, with grey green basal leaves arranged in a circular pattern. The open center is for water storage and blooming. The bloom is not as showy flower wise, but the capsule bracts have a lovely green to purplish hue. Its claim to fame is the tall tree spike, which can reach 40 plus inches. After flowering and fruiting seeds are dispersed and offspring look for their perfect host place. Some of these plants are known to live 20 plus years. Sadly, years of being poached and picked have left our native airplants in a dire state of depletion. For our future generations, all native tillansia are protected and you will pay a steep fine for removing them.

Our garden is fortunate to have many naturally occurring native tillansia who have naturally taken up residence. Explore your garden oasis, you may find a hidden treasure just hanging around that you never knew was there.


Native plant

Likes filtered sun to shade

Easy to maintain

Unique, exotic and fanciful

Salt tolerant

Is great for oooh’s and ahhs

Takes up no room in the garden

Everyone needs at least one

No care needed

Lovely soft fragrance

Now you know to leave them in your trees.


Protected cannot collect from the wild

Need a host plant with lots of canopy

It’s hard to say no to a Tillansia

Conclusion: Look it’s a bird, it’s a plane, no it’s a giant airplane. They are waiting for you to admire, photograph and leave them safe for your grandkids to enjoy many generations away.

Don’t wanna miss this bloomer!