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40. KRULIK, GERALD, The Bromeliad Nobody Knows, PUP TALK
(Saddleback Valley Bromeliad Society), 14(5)p.4-8, May , 2007.
Botanists often reference two plant groups, the Bromeliads and the Cacti, as
quintessentially American plants. Both North and South America have scads of
species of each. Like many simplifications, this is not strictly true. There is one
species of epiphytic tree-dwelling cactus, that is found in a broad swath of
Africa and Asia, perhaps even extending to Ceylon. These plants are all
referred to as being one species, Rhipsalis cassutha. This plant puts out loads
of white juicy berries, quite attractive to birds. Evidently in the not too distant
past, some bird with constipation managed to fly all the way from South America
to Africa to spread this species.
One species of Bromeliad is also found naturally in Africa. Why do I say it is the
bromeliad that nobody knows? My feeling is that when a plant is known, there
should be accurate information. This information should be derived from actual
knowledge of the plant. Note that I believe that this data should be freely
publicly available; backup data can be found in usually non-searchable or non-
viewable places such as herbaria, or in costly restricted journals. Such
1. Where did it come from.
2. Descriptions of the flower and fruit or seed.
3. Photos—not just one—of the plant species for comparison and validation.
4. There should be multiple plants in cultivation.
Our plant falls short on all counts. First, let’s identify the plant.
The original name was Willrusellia feliciana, named by a French botanist. He
also published this in 1938, as a new family, genus and species of Lily! Your
mindset can greatly hamper your perceptions, as he knew that Bromeliads are
only found in the Americas. It only took six years (!) for other botanists to
recognize that this was wrong. They renamed it Pitcairnia feliciana. (1)
Pitcairnia is an interesting and little-grown genus. Few people know that
Pitcairnia contains the second largest group of Bromeliad species, after
Tillandsia. Tillandsia has over 600 species, while Pitcairnia has about 450.
(PlantSystematics.org actually lists 572 names, including the ones which are
invalid) (2). The Bromeliads are divided into three groupings. Tillandsia is
regarded as one of the most advanced genera in the most advanced grouping.
Pitcairnia is regarded as one of the basal, or most primitive, genera of all the
Bromeliads, in the most primitive grouping. If any genus has the potential to
spread to Africa, I would have thought that one of the tree and rock dwelling,
xerophytic Tillandsias with small wind-blown seeds would have made the trip,
maybe attached to some bird feathers.
Let’s start with question number 1, where did it come from? This should be
pretty easy, right? Well, try doing an Internet search. It took a bit of searching to
track down the locality for this plant. There were many conflicting and useless
references for the collection locality.
I did find an article on the discovery of the plant in 1937, by the discoverer. This
was written quite late in his life, and published in 2000. Unfortunately, I was not
able to access the paper. Most biological information is NOT accessible on the
Internet, unless you pay really steep fees for articles that may or may not be of
any interest since you cannot preview them as you do in a library. This article
was reprinted in the BSI journal, but is not yet accessible as the scanning and
indexing project has not been completed. (3) Information that is hidden and not
readily available, is almost as bad as no information at all. And no other article
seemingly has referenced this source, so it has not spread to become common
knowledge. Now, let’s go on with what other people say.
One writer went so far as to speculate that the collection record is in doubt,
meaning that either it was actually from South America, or someone recently
brought it to Africa. Evidently there are few herbarium specimens, but that is
not unusual for rare plants. (4)
Various web articles gave P. feliciana as occurring in Africa, West Africa,
Guinea, and finally Fernando Po. The general occurrence information was like
saying a rare plant is found in the southern US, or the Gulf Coast. Givnish did a
recent paper on the relationships of various bromeliads by sequencing one of
the enzymes involved in photosynthesis. (5) He says that Bioko, formerly known
as Fernando Po, under Portuguese domination, is the apparent home of this
bromeliad. This is a large island just 20 miles off the coast of Cameroon. Since
his was one of the most recent, and a scholarly impressive referenced journal
article, I took his information as a starting point for study. Bioko (Fernando Po)
belongs to Equatorial Guinea, just below Cameroon, in West Africa. This area is
called the Bight of Africa, and was quite notorious as a source of slaves.
Now, let me show a map, just to confuse you. This quite clearly shows the
country of Equatorial Guinea, south of Nigeria and Cameroon. The largest island
is Bioko. (6) All maps are from the web, courtesy of MSN.ENCARTA, unless noted
The island of Bioko, shown below, is a pretty large island. There is a
comprehensive web site dedicated to the conservation of the biota of this
island. There is no mention of the Pitcairnia under any of the botanical links, nor
is it on the short list of threatened plants. This seems a bit strange, as you
would think that the only bromeliad in all of the Old World is worthy of mention,
or perhaps a site for tourism. (7)
I did run across a German doctoral dissertation that mentions P. feliciana.
This map quite clearly shows its occurrence in a wide strip of Equatorial Guinea.
Does this mean that it occurs both on the island and the mainland?
Actually, no. All this is wrong information. This doctoral dissertation shows the
African distribution of P. feliciana, on the mainland. Unfortunately, this shows
that it occurs in Equatorial Guinea, a long ways from the actual location. (8)) I
think the student used the map from a famous (incorrect!) reference book (8a).
I had some more trouble when crosschecking the locality. Rauh said it was
found in Kindia, in Guinea. Grant and Zijlstra said Guinea, with (French Guinea)
in parentheses. The map search found Kindia, but it was on the mainland, not
on an island. The look of the rest of the country was strange. In place of the
island of Bioko, in roughly the same place were the largely uninhabited, small
cluster of Bissagos Islands! Guess how many of us are not good geographers.
How many know that there are THREE Guineas in Africa? Here is another map.
If you travel NORTH of Equatorial Guinea (it is on the equator), and go past
Cameroon and Nigeria, you eventually come to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and
surprise! Guinea and Guinea-Bissau! And right there in Guinea (Or French
Guinea as it was known at the time of discovery) is the city of Kindia.
I think now we have the real site for the bromeliad. This area is covered with
sandstone outcroppings and mesas, similar to the tepuis in the Guyana
highlands of Venezuela in South America. The Guyana Highlands are important
because it appears to be the area where bromeliads first evolved. There are
plenty of primitive bromeliads including Pitcairnias. This area also has lots of
plants in the family Rapateaceae, which is closely related to the ancestral
bromeliads. Interestingly, there is only one species of this family in Africa,
Maschalocephalus dinklagei. It also seems to have arisen in the Guyana Shield
area, the same place that bromeliads came from, and occupies similar terrestrial
locations. It is widespread in Guinea, and in the Ivory Coast, next door. While I
was not able to access the Selbyana article, I think that I can now be confident
that I know about where it grows, on the mainland of Africa. (5) Here is a photo
of Maschalocephalus dinklagei.
Now lets go to question number 2, Descriptions of the flower and fruit or seed.
Remember that the University of Wisconsin web site said that the locality
information was in doubt. Another place in their web site, despite their doubt as
to the plant’s actual occurrence in Africa, quotes the fruit. “Only one species of
Bromeliaceae in the genus Pitcairnia gets into Africa and it has fleshy, bird-
dispersed fruits. Most members of the Bromeliaceae are confined to either the
Guyana Shield or the Andes.” (9). I think that we can now disregard this
reference. Even though it is from a university where people publish articles on
bromeliads, it is dead wrong. Bromeliads are NOT mostly confined to those two
This reference says that P. feliciana has juicy, bird dispersed fruits. However, to
quote Rauh, Re: Pitcairnias: “the capsule develops to disperse numerous small
spindle- or keel-shaped seeds.” This is not a berry. He also says that the seeds
of Pitcairnia are small, winged, and wind dispersed. Both of the references from
the University of Wisconsin contradict the other information I have found. I
would believe Rauh, one of the master explorers and taxonomists for the
Finally we come to numbers 3, Photos—not just one—of the plant species for
comparison and validation, and 4,There should be multiple plants in cultivation.
A web search for photos had very limited success. I found two smallish photos
on the web, which might be different views or ages of the same plant. No data
are available as to where the plant originally came from. However, a verified
plant evidently exists since at least one specimen was used for the genetic
analysis quoted here as reference (5). The two photos on the web look like
different views of the same immature seedling. Basically the best photo tells us
nothing, really, about the plant. It just looks like many other seedling Pitcairnias.
Going back to the descriptions I have, it is supposed to be a large plant. The
photo tells us little about the species, and certainly without a flower the identity
cannot be confirmed. Here is a photo of the claimed plant of Pitcairnia feliciana.
(10) Feliciana is named after its French collector, Henri Jacques-Felix, who was
still alive in 1997 and able to answer some questions about it. Thus I have no
personal doubt that it was found in (French) Guinea, Africa.
Rauh evidently had access to the primary literature or herbarium specimens for
his book. He quotes it as having a flower stalk up to 30 cm (about one foot) tall
when in flower, and with leaves half a meter long (20 inches). He also quotes
the flower as being a ‘lively orange-yellow, weakly zygomorphic’. Zygomorphic
(non-symmetrical, often tubular) flowers are a common indicator of
hummingbird pollination. The color also is typical of hummingbird pollinated
flowers. Given that no hummingbirds exist outside of the Americas, and other
evidence indicates that the Pitcairnia has been in Africa for quite some time,
this is puzzling. Flowers normally evolve rapidly to accommodate local
pollinators. Maybe the African Sunbirds, which are like hummingbirds except
that they have to perch to feed on nectar, have taken over the job of pollination.
Here is a link to some nice color photos of flowering Pitcairnias. (11)
So this is the story of the Bromeliad Nobody (or hardly anybody) Knows. I would
love to see some intrepid traveler visit Guinea to see if this plant can still be
I will put all the references for the data and the pictures, in the copy of this
article on my website (www.aecphotos.com).
1. Grant, Jason R and Zijlstra, Gea, An Annotated Catalogue of the Generic
Names of the Bromeliaceae, Selbyana 19(1): 91-121 (1998)
3. The discovery of a bromeliad in Africa: Pitcairnia feliciana, Jacques Felix, H.
2000, Selbyana 21(1/2): 118-124, The history of discovery of the single
Bromeliaceae species outside the New World, P. feliciana, is recounted by its
first collector, Henri Jacques-Felix, for whom it was named. Notes on
distribution and a description of the habitat where P. feliciana is found are
5. GIVNISH, THOMAS1*, TIMOTHY EVANS2, KENDRA MILLAM1, PAUL BERRY1,
JOCELYN HALL1, and KENNETH SYTSMA1. 1Department of Botany, University of
Wisconsin, Madison WI 53706; 2Department of Biology, Hope College, Holland
MI 49423. - South American-African disjunctions in Rapateaceae and
7. http://www.bioko.org/ island
8. Die mit einer Ausnahme (Pitcairnia feliciana in Westafrika, Guinea) rein
neuweltliche Familie. der Bromeliaceae (Abb.1) umfaßt heute rund 2800 Arten.:
8A. Benzing, David H., Bromeliaceae: Profile of an Adaptive Radiation,
Cambridge University Press, 2000.