Tillandsia are tucked into this winter arrangement. Photo credit: Carol Papas
Tillandsia, commonly known as air plants, are of the moment in the gardening scene. A quick look at popular design blogs including Design Sponge and Apartment Therapy, the social media sites Pinterest and Instagram, as well as trendy garden catalogs such as Terrain, feature Tillandsia in exciting and beautiful ways. They add a foliage surprise to bridal bouquets, make interesting wall art and add a touch of the exotic to vignettes in home décor.
In nature, Tillandsia species are epiphytes, meaning that they attach to other plants or rocky substrate as a means of support. Their roots are used solely for attachment--rather than absorbing nutrients or water via roots, air plants rely on the moisture in the atmosphere to grow and thrive. Trichomes are specialized structures on the leaves of air plants which trap moisture and dust, providing the plant with water and nutrients.
Air plants are divided into two categories: mesic and xeric. Mesic air plants hail from moderately humid regions such as South American rainforests. They thrive in a canopy of trees and prefer more filtered light than their xeric counterparts. The leaves of mesic types are deeper green, smoother and slightly cupped. Xeric air plants are from desert-like climates and are often rock dwellers. Their leaves have larger numbers of trichomes, resulting in a gray or fuzzy appearance. Often their leaves are wider to allowing a larger surface area to absorb water and light.
Tillandsias are forgiving indoor plants if given adequate amounts of light and water. They do best with bright, indirect light, preferably in an east or west facing window. In our region with its number of cloudy days, excessive sunlight is unlikely to be the demise of an air plant.
Misting, rinsing, or soaking are three methods of watering Tillandsias. Misting air plants to the point of run-off may have to be done every other day with low household humidity. I have found rinsing to be the simplest watering technique. Twice a week I gather my air plants, hold them under the faucet, rinsing them thoroughly with tepid water. Lay them face down on a paper towel for a few seconds to drain off excess water. Other sources report great success by a submerging air plants weekly for 20 minutes to an hour, then draining them well.
Good air circulation is important to air plants. While they look great enclosed in glass, be sure to allow plants to dry at least 4 hours after watering before placing them back in a terrarium.
Air plants bloom but once in their lifetime. The flowers come in many shapes and in a range of color from coral, to pinks and purples. After Tillandsias flower, they produce “pups” or small offsets--new plants emerging from the base of the mother plant. Once pups are one-third the size of the mother plant they can be gently separated from the main plant and grown on their own, or they can be left in place allowing the plant to form a clump.
Tillandsias will benefit by a monthly application of fertilizer formulated for bromeliads. Fellow bromeliads include an array of colorful tropical plants, orchids, Spanish moss and pineapples. Clemson University Extension recommends diluting liquid fertilizer to one-fourth the recommended rate and adding it monthly to the regular watering regime.
The fact that air plants thrive without the encumbrance of soil offers lots of options for their use in decorating. Many Tillandsia displays take advantage of this by suspending the plants on wire, hanging them on walls, dangling their leaves from shells or simply plunking them into vases or pretty much anywhere they look interesting.
Most air plant displays feature them in contemporary settings with organic elements such as rocks, shells and driftwood. Try an updated spin on country by adding moss and air plants to a grapevine wreath. A vintage vase with a single Tillandsia xerographica tucked inside looks fun and fresh. If you have a tall houseplant such as cactus or amaryllis, cover the potting soil with pebbles and place some tiny air plants at their feet for added foliage interest. It’s easy to gather them up once a week, rinse them off and play with fresh placement without a speck of dirt to clean up afterward.