Air Plants

Phil Peters
Adams County Master Gardener

(2/17) Air plants, more formally tillandsias, are a genus like no other. With virtually no roots and deriving their nourishment from the air-borne dust and rainwater, air plants are among the most unusual members of the plant world. The 400 species of these plants are native to the Southern U.S., the West Indies and Central and South America. Members of the bromeliad family, they are related to the pineapple.

Tillandsias do not rely on soil. They are epiphytes, plants that live on other plants for support, but they are not parasites since they donít feed on the host plant. Indeed, in Costa Rica and Panama I have seen them happily growing on telephone wires and chain link fences. Their vestigial roots only serve to hold them in place.

We are all familiar with that icon of the Deep South, Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usenoides), and we have seen air plants at fairs & garden shows attached to refrigerator magnets or pieces of driftwood. How do they manage?

Tillandsias must derive all their nourishment from the breezes and the rainwater that bring in dust particles and dissolved nutrients. Moreover, the rain will wash down other nutrients as it drips from the leaves above. To make the most of this rarefied existence tillandsia have developed special organs called trichomes that are minute scales or feathery hairs that filter out what the plant needs to maintain its growth. The moving breezes provide oxygen. Tillandsias that grow high in the sunny environment of the forest canopy or in dry climates sport more trichomes, giving them a white or silvery appearance. The more numerous trichomes pick up what moisture and nutrients there are, while the silvery covering reflects the sun and prevents sunburn.

The plants that make their home lower down in the trees or in cloud forests where there is abundant moisture and less intense light have trichomes that are not as hairy, giving them a green coloration. They also tend to have broader, more open leaves.

With the proper care these plants will give you years of enjoyment. Place the plant where it will receive regular air flow in bright, but indirect, light. A window that receives morning or late afternoon sun is good. Excessive exposure to direct sunlight for too long will burn the plant. You can put the plant outdoors in the warm summer and fall air. Pick a dappled shade to avoid sunburn.

From late spring to mid-fall mist the plant daily with an atomizer. Or once a week submerge the plant for a couple of hours in a container of water and mist the plant several times in between. Make sure you wet all parts of the leaves. Let the plant drip dry after soaking. Donít let the plant sit in water. It can rot. Give it a ľ strength application of low-nitrogen fertilizer monthly. Any balanced fertilizer will do. One suitable for bromeliads orchids is fine. Over the winter, mist or water the plant once or twice a week so it doesnít get too dry. These plants like moderate to high humidity. Tap water is acceptable; rain water has more nutrients. Follow the directions that come with your plant.

Yes, the plant will flower. Some tillandsias will get a reddish blush before they put out a stalk that will bear one or more flowers. The flowers are usually tubular or funnel-shaped and are very colorful, with blooms of pink, deep blue or yellow.

While some tillandsias may flower only once in their lifetimes, all will develop off-shoots, small versions of themselves around the base of the mother plant. These are called "pups." You can leave them attached or carefully separate them. You can enjoy your plant on the magnet or in a cup on the windowsill. Or you can incorporate it into plantings and displays of companion plants. Orchids, bromeliads, cacti, or terrarium displays are often used.

Tillandsias are very slow-growing. So be patient and enjoy the touch of green they will bring you.

Read other articles on care of house plants

Read other articles by Phillip Peters