“By profession, I am a pharmacist, but by love, I am into plants,” joked Dr. Johnnie Hamond in introducing “Growing & Rescuing Tropical Airplants” at the Fort Myers Beach Public Library on Wednesday morning, January 9, before a dozen people. “I spell ‘Pharmacist’ with an ‘F’ because I grew up on a 38-acre farm in Kentucky, so I know firsthand that in a large variety of the drugs we get from plants today, we pull out the chemicals we need, but leave a lot of the really good and healthy stuff behind!”
Dr. Hamond said her interest in Florida’s Tropical Airplants is because she and her husband live on a half-acre parcel near downtown Fort Myers, on the Billy’s Creek tributary of the Caloosahatchee River, “and we have a jungle there, full of mangos, tangerines and grapefruit, along with my latest babies – the attractive and native Tropical Airplants, most of which are rare, threatened or endangered, with many rescued from the ground and fallen branches after Hurricane Irma.”
There are roughly 600 airplant varieties that flower perennially. They do not require soil for their roots, with leaves full of specialized cells to rapidly absorb ambient humidity. They are commonly known as “airplants” because of their natural propensity to cling to whatever conditions permit, like tree branches and bark, bare rocks and even manmade objects like telephone poles. They are found mostly in northern Mexico and the Southeastern United States, and their light seeds allow the breeze to easily spread them. The gray species thrive in Florida, as they prefer precipitation-poor areas with high humidity and full sun, growing mostly in the upper levels of woods or on rocks, and take many years to mature and flower. After seeds form, the mother plant dies.
Flip Up & Shut Down
“The specialized leaf cells are called ‘trichomes,’” explained Dr. Hamond. “When the plant is dry, leaf edges flip up to collect and absorb water from rain, dew, dust, decaying leaves and insects, and even humidity and fog, funneling water through microscopic openings for nutrients. When they absorb enough, trichomes shut down to retain water. They reopen at night to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen that they release, while converting acid into sugar for food. The grayer the leaf, the more trichomes.”
Dr. Hamond brought several native examples. “’Giants’ are large, with lush leaves that spread out from the center, with colorful flowers when it blooms. ‘Cardinals’ can take more sun, but is so similar to the ‘Giant’ that only a true expert can tell them apart, and sometimes not even then, as airplants easily cross-hybrid with each other. Fairly common ones include Spanish Moss, Ball Moss with beautiful purple flowers, and Tropical Orchids. It can take up to 15 years to reach maturity and that is one of the reasons why they are so endangered. When they do seed, though, they can release up to 10,000! Airplants are highly regulated, due to their endangered designation. Legally, you cannot pick one off a tree; that is akin to taking home a live shell. You need a legal permit to grow most airplants and you better have one to sell them!”
Airplants are a popular household plant because they require little maintenance including water. “If you keep your airplants in the house, once a week or so dunk them into a bucket of pond or rain water for about 20 minutes, as misting is not enough, then set them out for about 4 hours to dry, as they don’t like it too wet, as that can cause rot; this is a big hazard with Orchids, as people water them too much. Provide them with plenty of air circulation to get the humidity they need.”
Do not hang airplants upside down, “so if you find a baby to rescue, place it upright,” she cautioned. “Only 2 to 4 percent will germinate and live longer than one year. Many will land on a twig, and when that breaks off or bark lets loose from a tree, they land on the ground and usually do not last long. Birds pollinate most airplants because they have no fragrance, but a few rare ones give off a sweet smell at night, with moths doing the pollination. The best places to find them is in Cypress or Oak Hammocks, as those trees have rough barks to which airplants can easily land and attach. Airplants do not have anything like thorns, so they do not hurt anybody!”
Upcoming Library events include “Happiness Is a Choice” on Tuesday, January 22, at 10:30 a.m. Patrice Koerper Robson explains why your brain is your best friend, while offering tips and techniques to live on the happy, positive and bright side during this interactive presentation. “Sensational Sharks” is Wednesday, January 23, with new Lovers Key State Park Manager Katie Moses describing how these mysterious animals use their senses to survive, at 10:30 a.m. “10 Foods That Define Florida” is Friday, January 25, at 10:30 a.m., with Gary Mormino, a Lifetime Achievement Award-winning food writer, explaining the most iconic foods that define the Sunshine State.
The first Library Book Sale of the New Year is Saturday & Sunday, January 19 & 20, in the parking garage, featuring a great selection and low prices, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Friends of The Library Annual Meeting is Monday, January 28, at 10:30 a.m. The Friends benefit the Library through volunteerism and financial support. Members and those interested in joining should attend, with the Guest Speaker Karen Manzi, the Beach Elementary School Principal. You do not need reservations, with light refreshments and donations welcome.
The Fort Myers Beach Public Library is at 2755 Estero Boulevard. Hours are Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and closed Sundays and holidays including on Monday, January 21, for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. For additional programs and information, see www.fmb.lib.fl.us or call 239-765-8162.
By Gary Mooney