An estimated 450 species of “air plants” (Tillandsia) are native to the tropical and subtropical Americas. Cloud forests and dry forests of Guatemala provide habitat for 77 species. Poachers have collected some Guatemalan Tillandsia to the point of extinction, but conservation laws have encouraged commercial production. Wholesale flower auctions in Holland market most Guatemalan Tillandsia (190 metric tons in 1996). Guatemala exported 14.5 million Tillandsia plants in 1996. Most survived less than one year after market.
Wet and Dry Forest
Guatemala’s cloud forests are remnants of ecosystems that were larger at lower elevation during the Pleistocene glaciation. They survive where humid Pacific air rises over mountains, creating fogs and high annual rainfall. Guatemala has moderate temperatures year round with alternate wet and dry seasons. During the dry season, epiphytes (non-parasitic flowering plants growing on trees) such as orchids and Tillandsia (particularly Tillandsia usneoides, the “Spanish moss” of southeastern USA) collect dew, which then drops to the forest floor, contributing to the ecosystem’s hydrologic budget. Not all Guatemalan Tillandsia grow among the clouds. Guatemala has extensive dry forests.
Mesic and Xeric
Tillandsia originated on the forest floor and evolved a mesic tank (a reservoir of water cupped in the leaves) for its epiphytic niche. More recent xeric (dry habitat) Tillandsia can absorb water from the atmosphere, without dew or rainfall. Some xerics display CAM (Crasslacean acid metabolism) and can fix carbon for photosynthesis during the cooler night hours.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) recognizes two xeric Guatemalan Tillandsia as endangered. Tillandsia harrisii and xerographica are subject to trade restrictions by 174 member countries. Only 100 xerographica survive in the wild, all on one breadfruit tree in Valley Rio Motagua at the base of the Sierra de las Minas. CITES banned xerographica trade until commercial plants were available. CITES Guatemala to Europe import quota grew from 699,983 artificially propagated plants in 2005 to 1,454,408 in 2009.
In 2000, the largest commercial Guatemalan Tillandsia grower was Jacobi, which grossed $750,000 USD. On three farms at three elevations with a total of 35 manzanas (60 acres), Jacobi had 59 varieties of Tillandsia in production. In 1998, CONAB (a Guatemalan forestry regulatory agency) prohibited Tillandsia collection in the wild for export. Since then, commercial growers cannot keep pace with demand for commercial Tillandsia. Sixty percent of Jacobi’s 2000 sales reached the European market, 30 percent were sold to the US and 10 percent went to Japan.
Wild Tillandsia receive scant nutrition from debris and dust on trees and can require 10 to 20 years to mature and flower. Tillandsia average four to six years to flower when grown with fertilizers and fungicides. Guatemalan production techniques now use hormones to suppress flowering in parent plants to encourage replication through vegetative offsets, which then flower in as few as three years. There are 22 registered Tillandsia nurseries in Guatemala.