Air plants are a perfect low-maintenance option for the gardener who wants to add a unique flair to their home or garden.
The Tillandsia genus includes more than 500 species and is part of the Bromeliad family. The most common name, Tillandsia, are also referred to as epiphytes, meaning they grow with no soil while attached to other host plants, thus the common moniker ‘air plants.’ (It is important to note that epiphytes are not parasitic plants and depend on the host for support only.)
Because they absorb water and nutrients through their leaves via trichomes (scales suited for suction), air plants require no soil. (In fact, do not ever plant them in soil!) Roots act merely as anchors to allow for adhering to trees, rocks, posts, fences and other objects, and can actually be removed if desired.
These unique and interesting specimens reproduce by seeds or offsets referred to as “pups,” with a single plant having as many as a dozen “pups” to assure reproduction. “Pups” can be removed for planting elsewhere or retained on the mother plant to promote clustering.
Tillandsia will only flower once, though “pupping” will assure that flowers continue to grow as mother plants are replaced by the “pups.”
While air plants grow in air, they still require water. Watering them properly is one of the most important components of keeping air plants healthy and vibrant. Misting them 2 to 4 times per week may suffice, though proper watering is recommended, saturating until run-off appears.
However, it is important to allow them to dry out completely before watering more, as they will rot if left wet for long periods. As the trichomes close once they’ve received enough moisture, it becomes fairly easy to get an understanding of just how much water is enough.
For proper growth, Tillandsia requires as bright a light as possible without burning. Indirect light, such as from south-, east- or west-facing windows (within 8 to 10 feet), or fluorescent tube or other grow lighting in a room with good circulation, is ideal. It may also be necessary to move air plants (especially from season to season) to find the area most suited for proper sun exposure.
Outdoors, air plants do well in partial-sun locations like under trees and shrubs, patios or shade cloths. Avoid placing air plants in direct sun for more than 45 minutes.
Tillandsia do not necessarily require fertilization, though if one chooses to the results are generally favorable. As with any plant it is important not to over-fertilize or use one that is not suited for air plants.
Diluted, water-soluble, acidic fertilizers are optimal and should be applied no more than once per month. Ammonium or nitrate nitrogen (low relative to the phosphorus, at least half of the potassium), phosphorus (use all you want), and potassium (again use in large amounts) will do the trick nicely. Avoid those fertilizers with copper, boron or zinc.
From near freezing to scorching heat, air plants are generally tolerant of varying degrees of temperature. They do best in higher humidity and anywhere from 50 to 90 degrees (70 to 85 degrees is optimal) allowing for a 10- to 15-degree drop in nighttime temps. While a light frost may result in minor leaf damage, frost for extended amounts of time will kill Tillandsia.
One of the coolest attributes of air plants is that they can be grown on practically any solid surface that doesn’t retain water, indoors or out.
They can be glued (only if waterproof), tied, stapled, or wired (no copper, as it kills air plants) to stone and rocks, seashells, ceramic tile, pottery, wood (only if not pressure treated), cork, glass, in terrariums—the sky, for the most part, is the limit. The plant just has to be watered, receive ample light, and (for younger plants) mounted in a place that will allow it to grow.
Keeping Tillandsia can be an enjoyable and fascinating pursuit, truly unique to other types of planting and growing. Their pre-bloom, vibrantly colored leaves, “disembodied” nature, and ability to be utilized in myriad ways makes them a winner.
Mackenzie Kupfer has been a lover of all things green since the age of six when she began gardening with her Nana. She is currently an online publisher for the tomato cage supplier, Avant Garden Decor. In her free time, Mackenzie enjoys attending garden shows, hiking, and collecting ceramic tea sets.