Tillandsias, commonly-referred to as ‘air plants’, are those adorable little bromeliads that you often see glued to seashells or ceramic pieces or magnetic thingamajigs. Sometimes you find a bunch of them in moss baskets hanging around the greenhouse. Other times you find an assortment of them in a container between succulent and tropical plants that overshadow them. But most of the time you don’t even notice them because you’ve never heard of them and aren’t on the lookout for them. Or you may have heard of them in some obscure way but have no interest in them because they don’t appeal to you or you believe that they’re too difficult to grow indoors, which they most certainly are not.
I’ve always known of Tillandsias but did not take a sincere interest in growing any until a few short years ago. That interest was triggered during the period I spent researching and gathering information about Bromeliads. Well, being the information junkie that I am, it was not surprising that I went off on a tangent when I visited a few websites that featured ‘air plants’ and all the wonderful displays you can create with them. Next thing I knew, I was spending a lot of time learning about them, the display possibilities and their care, which is unbelievably easy. It didn’t take long before I was sold on the idea and began greenhouses, hunting down these cute little plants that are small enough to sit in the palm of my hand. And although I am not collecting Tillandsias fervently (yet), I definitely have a passion for them.
Now, I don’t know an awful lot about these Bromeliads, but what I do know, I’m willing to share with my readers. This post consists of general information about this group of plants, but you will have to do more research on your own for specific care of a particular species, which there are hundreds of. And, if you are an experienced ‘air plant’ grower, after you’ve finished reading what I’ve written on this page, please feel free to add comments and suggestions to educate me further.
So here’s what I’ve learned so far:
What Are Tillandsias?
With over 500 (or over 650 – depending on who you ask) known species and new ones being discovered every year, Tillandsia is the largest and most extraordinary genus in the Bromeliad (Bromeliaceae) family of plants. Commonly referred to as ‘air plants’ or ‘airplants’, these lovely specimens are found growing naturally in the deserts, forests and mountains of Mexico, South and Central America, and in Southern parts of the United States.
Growing on trees, cliffs, rocks or any other supportive hosts, these epiphytes, whose roots are only used as anchors, gather water and nutrients from the air through small scales on their leaves called trichomes (a hair-like or bristle-like outgrowth, as from the epidermis of a plant). Trichomes have two very important functions: 1) they absorb moisture and 2) they provide protection from the sun. The density of trichomes on a Tillandsia varies, depending on the plant’s surroundings and the amount of sun it is exposed (and has adapted) to. Plants that grow in shadier, more humid environments will have fewer trichomes while plants that are exposed to full sun and drier surroundings will have more.
Tillandsias are available in a large variety of sizes, shapes, textures and colours, so there’s definitely something for every individual plant palette. In addition, the blooms that these plants display are just as distinct and interesting, lasting anywhere from a few days to as long as a year. Flowers come in shades of red, pink, blue, purple, white, yellow and orange.
One of the most wonderful things about these plants – and all Bromeliads in fact – is that you can start off with a single specimen and end up with many more. Tillandsias produce offsets (pups) from the base or between the leaves of the mother plant. A single plant can produce anywhere from 1 – 8 pups, sometimes up to a dozen. The young plants can be separated from mom when they are at least 1/3, preferably 1/2, the size of the parent plant; they will mature in about one year. You don’t have to separate the offsets from mom and grow them individually; you can keep them together in clumps, which makes for an attractive display. Despite their exotic and unusual looks, Tillandsias are remarkably easy to care for, especially the ones that are readily-available at local stores. Here’s what you need to know:
Caring For Air Plants
I have gone through all my houseplant books and spent a lot of time on the internet trying to learn as much as I can about Tillandsias. And I’ve come to this conclusion: there is so much difference of opinion, and so much varied advice about these plants, that it leaves your head spinning. By the time you finish researching, you’re left more confused than ever. And why? Because although there is general care that applies across the board with Tillandsias, a lot of their care depends on the conditions of your home and the type of plant you are growing.
For example, I’ve learned that you can determine how much light a specific Tillandsia needs by its foliage. Plants that have tougher, thicker leaves with grayer colour in them require more light than plants that have thinner, greener foliage. Full sun can be tolerated by the thick-leafed, gray to white-leafed species but the softer-leafed types can easily burn with excess sunshine. Most sources of information suggest that the best way to deduce how much light your Tillandsias need is by moving them around each season until they give you the green (no pun intended) light of satisfaction.
I think that experimenting with your plants until you find their preferred spot is fine, but, until that time, you have to put them somewhere. And my suggestion is to provide them with a bright location that offers filtered sunlight from April to October. You can try direct sun on some of the thick-leafed, grayer types but bear in mind that direct sun during the hottest months of the year may cause sunburns, so be careful. Filtered light coming in from an east, west or south location works fine. My own little clan sits right in front of a southeast window; they receive sunlight the entire morning that’s filtered by a sheer curtain. From November to March, the sun is weaker and Tillandsias will handle direct, unfiltered early morning or late afternoon sun easily. In any case, like with all other indoor plants, look for signs of contentment or discontentment and adjust accordingly if necessary. And finally, do not place these plants in low light areas that will hinder their growth; they need good light to be at their best.
Perhaps the hardest thing to master with these cuties is how often and how much to water. This is where experience, which you will gather over time, will come in handy. If you look up information for this part of a Tillandsia’s care, you’ll discover a whirlwind of it. It’s not surprising though; there’s absolutely no way to tell you exactly when, how often or how much to water because it all depends on what type of environment your plants are growing in. Eventually you will learn to read the signs of “please water me now!” that your Tillandsias will communicate to you.
So, the short answer for watering is: it depends. The long answer is much more complicated. But I will share whatever I’ve picked up along the way that might be of help to you. Many sources of information will discourage misting, stating that it’s not enough to keep air plants properly hydrated. I don’t agree or disagree with this point. It depends. If your plants are growing in an area that provides much higher than average humidity like a terrarium, misting will probably suffice. But if they’re growing in a drier room in the house, misting will not even come close to quenching their thirst.
One of the most common mistakes with watering Tillandsias, believe it or not, is under-watering. Most tags attached to these plants will instruct you to mist – regularly (whatever that means) – and nothing more. But this information is misleading. In an average home, even if you mist daily, it may not prevent a gradual dehydration. Symptoms of water stress due to under-watering include limp, wrinkled, rolled or curled leaves.
The most effective way to water Tillandsias is to immerse them in water for about twelve hours overnight. This watering method will keep your plants completely hydrated for a long period of time. In average home conditions, you should apply this method every 10 – 14 days. In extremely dry conditions, you may need to do this weekly. In addition, be extremely careful with plants grown in cooler, shadier areas; they must be watered much less to prevent rot. In this case, you may not need to water for an entire month, maybe even much longer if the temperature is very low. After you have removed your plants from the water, turn them upside down to dump the excess moisture from the center of the plant and from between the leaves. This is especially important if your Tillandsias are attached to items such as seashells that will retain water. The plants will not survive in standing water.
And although I’ve already stated that spraying your plants should not be used as the sole means of watering, you can mist between each major watering on those hot and dry days, or during those periods when the heating system or the air-conditioning is running. Just make sure you spray early in the day, preferably morning, so your plants have enough time to dry. Do not keep your Tillandsias constantly wet or moist; your plants should dry within four hours after each watering. This can be easily achieved if they are grown in a well-ventilated area where there is good air circulation. If they stay wet too often for too long, they will rot.
Finally, if your Tillandsias are attached to items that are much too large to submerge in water, you will have to soak the plants regularly to try and keep them hydrated. In this case, place them under a faucet and run water over them at least 2 – 4 times a week until they are drenched (how many times you do this will depend on the growing conditions in your home). You will also need to mist the plants regularly, perhaps daily, to help avoid dehydration. Monitor the state of your plants and adjust the methods above as needed. This may not be as good a method as submerging but it will have to suffice. If you are keen on mounting your Tillandsias on items that are much too large to immerse, consider attaching them with wiring or Velcro instead of glue so they can be detached, watered properly and reattached easily.
Temperature is not critical, nor is it inflexible. Commonly-available Tillandsias can tolerate a wide range of temperatures – anywhere from 32°C (90°F) down to 10°C (50°F), although most grown indoors are exposed to average temperatures that keep their owners comfortable. Being able to draw in ample moisture from the air is obviously important to an epiphyte’s survival, so your Tillandsias should be grown in areas where humidity is, at the very least, between 40 – 50 percent. Although higher levels are preferable, proper and more frequent watering can compensate for drier conditions. Humidity levels as low as 20 – 30 percent may prove more difficult; the plants will be less tolerant of such dry levels and may dehydrate faster.
Tillandsias can survive with little or no fertilizer but they won’t grow as quickly or flower as often. Make your plants happy by fertilizing them about once a month; in turn they will grow more vigorously, become larger and may even bloom. There are a couple of ways you can go about feeding this group. You can add a small amount of liquid or water-soluble fertilizer to the water used for soaking; ½ or ¼ recommended strength should be fine. Or you can fill up a spray bottle with a very weak fertilizer solution and mist the leaves lightly every 2 – 4 weeks. If you choose to feed your plants, do this only during the active growing period, from April to September.
The epiphytic Tillandsias grow very poorly in conventional potting mixtures and that’s why you see them mounted on different types of media instead of potted in containers like other plants. You can attach your plants to almost anything; the possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Some suggestions include, but are not limited to: driftwood, rocks, tree limbs, seashells, coral, cork, clay pottery, grapewood and crystals. No matter what you select, make sure that it’s safe for your plants. For example, here are three things to consider:
- Make sure that the selected item drains properly and does not hold water. Seashells should be turned over after soaking or spraying to dump the excess water.
- Do not use treated wood that may have chemicals in it such as copper, which is toxic to bromeliads.
- Ocean driftwood should be soaked in fresh water for at least a couple of days to remove accumulated salts.
You may also decide not to attach your plants to anything at all. Some growers hang a group of them from a string, which can look quite attractive. A few adhesives for mounting that internet sites recommend: Liquid Nails, E6000 (seems to be the top choice) and hot glue. If you do not want to glue your plants, wire them to the selected medium instead.
So there you have it folks; my small contribution to the care of Tillandsias. Although I’m not an expert, I have gathered pertinent information, as well as experience, over the years, which has helped me provide better care for my plants. The one thing I do know for sure is that these amazing plants have very few demands, and the ones they do have are easy to provide. Their easygoing nature makes them a great choice for indoor gardeners. But be wary; Tillandsias are quite addictive. You’ll start with one or two and end up with oodles of them. They’re like potato chips; you can’t have just one…
Contributed by Martha Plousos