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Getting Started: Air Plants

Photo from Creative Terrariums

Tillandsias, or “air plants” as they are more commonly called, belong to the Bromeliaceae (bromeliads) family. With over 500 distinct species, they come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. Tillandsias are native to the forests, deserts, and mountains of the Americas. In parts of the southeastern United States, where the climate is mostly sunny and humid, you’ll find Tillandsia usneoides (Spanish moss) cascading over withering branches of old oak trees. In the deserts and tropical forests of Central and South America, you’ll find incredible species of Tillandsia clinging to trees and rocks while happily sunbathing and drinking in the morning dew.

Tillandsias are considered epiphytes, meaning they use their leaves instead of roots to take in water and nutrients from the air. Unlike ordinary plants, tillandsias can survive just fine without soil — hence the name “air plant.” In their natural habitat, they use their roots to anchor themselves to tall trees where they can be closer to the sunlight and have better airflow around their leaves.

Air plants sport trichomes (that cute peach fuzz you see on their leaves) to collect water and nutrients. Trichomes also help protect them from insects and shield them from intense sunlight. Think of it as a natural sunscreen: the more trichomes you can see on an air plant, the higher the SPF and the more it can tolerate intense sunlight.

Xeric and Mesic

Tillandsias can be classified as two distinct groups, xeric and mesic. Xeric (from the Greek word for “dry”) tillandsias are native to desert climates. Tillandsia xerographica has flat pale green leaves to catch as much direct sunlight as possible. Xeric varieties are popular at garden centers because they are drought tolerant and will easily survive if you forget to water them for a bit or go on vacation for a couple of weeks.

Mesic tillandsias are native to tropical climates and insist on being kept hydrated.

Many varieties are bright green in appearance and have tight leaf formations.

LIGHT

Direct sunlight. Xeric tillandsias live in desert climates and require light all day. Place in direct sunlight or near a southfacing window where they can sunbathe.

Bright indirect sunlight. Mesic tillandsias do best in bright indirect sunlight. However, avoid placing them directly in a window where the glass can magnify the sunlight and scorch their leaves.

Fluorescent lighting. Most tillandsias can live in an office environment with bright overhead office lighting, making them popular desk companions.

WATERING

Upon purchasing an air plant and bringing it home, soak it to reduce its stress reaction to its new environment. It’s also important to acknowledge that air plants like their water au naturel. Tillandsias are sensitive to minerals (and other not-so-natural stuff) found in most tap water. To avoid toxic exposure, fill a large jar or bowl with tap water and let it sit for 24 hours. This will allow any harmful substances to evaporate.

When it rains, I like to put a bucket out on my balcony and collect fresh water for my plants, but distilled water from your local store works just as well. Always allow water to reach room temperature before watering. When it comes to watering tillandsias, people usually fall into one of two camps: misting or soaking. However, a healthy combination of both is ideal for optimal air plant care.

Soaking. Your air plants should go for a swim once a week, or twice a week when the weather turns warm or if you live in a hot and dry climate. Fully submerge air plants in a bowl of water (or your kitchen sink if you have a whole tribe) for 20 to 30 minutes (see previous page). Once bath time is up, pluck them out of the water and give them a few gentle shakes to dislodge any water from their bases. Place them upside down on a paper towel or dish rack to allow the excess water to drip away. Only return air plants to their terrarium once they are completely dry (usually after a couple of hours).

Misting. Mist air plants a couple times a week with a spray bottle, or daily if you live in a dry climate. This helps keep them hydrated between soakings. When misting, target only the leaves and do not allow water to run into the base of the plant and stay there. This could lead to rot, so it’s important to work out any excess water from the base. If your air plants are part of an intricate display and too cumbersome to remove, lightly mist them every day or two.

Photo from Shutterstock

TEMPERATURE AND HUMIDITY

Generally, tillandsias respond well to temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit (18 and 30 degrees Celsius). The key to raising healthy tillandsias is to provide them with the right balance of light, water, and, for some varieties, humidity. Airconditioning in the summer and heaters in the winter can dry the air in our homes and quickly dehydrate the more tropical varieties.

A terrarium can be the perfect home for an air plant because the walls of the vessel help to hold the humidity inside. Another great place to keep air plants is in the bathroom. While you shower, they will soak up the water vapor from the air. You get clean, they get hydrated, and everyone is happy!

FOUNDATION

One of the reasons I love tillandsias is because they don’t require any soil. Their foundation is whatever you can dream up. Place them on top of rocks or sand, or hotglue their bases to moss or wood. You can even tie a piece of twine or wire to the base of a plant and suspend it from a wall nail or ceiling hook. The sky’s the limit!

FLOWERS

It might be surprising to learn that tillandsias only bloom once during their life cycle. It marks the beginning of their reproductive cycle. Blooms will shoot out from the center of the plants and sometimes flowers can last up to several weeks. Larger plants such as Tillandsia xerographica can bloom for months! Personally, my favorite blooms are the purple and pink flowers produced by Tillandsia araujei ‘Purple Star’ (check out plant identification on pages 40 and 41).

Blooming. If you would like to see your tillandsias bloom, they will need ideal watering and light conditions to grow to maturity. Fertilizer is not necessary but can help with blooming. Organic air plant fertilizers are readily available from air plant suppliers online. Spray the fertilizer according to the supplier’s label. 

Offsets. Once the blooms have lost their luster and begin to wilt, take sharp shears and snip off the blooms closest to the base. This will encourage the growth of offsets, or “pups,” as they are called in the air plant world. Air plants produce one to three pups at their bases, where the roots grow. Once the pups are about one-third the size of the mother plant, you can soak the plant and then gently remove the pups so they can liveon their own.

PRUNING

I admit I was a little scared to prune my first tillandsia for fear I would hurt it. But once I saw how it encouraged new growth, I was all over it! New growth springs from the centers of the air plants, which means you can prune the outer leaves to promote new growth and redirect energy to where the plants need it most. Use sharp shears to cut away old blooms, but you can gently tear away any yellow or dried leaves. Tillandsias do not need roots to collect nutrients, so, for the sake of appearances, it’s okay to peel away any unsightly roots.

PROBLEMS

Leaving water between their leaves for too long or keeping them in a damp place can lead to rot and disease. This happens when too much moisture accumulates at the base of the plant (closest to the root) and encourages bacteria and fungus to grow. If you find your plants’ roots turning brown, foliage becoming soft, and leaves falling off, they have most likely succumbed to root rot. I’m just going to give it to you straight up: the chance of a tillandsia surviving long term with root rot is slim, so don’t get too triggerhappy.

More from Creative Terrariums:

Terrariums are a popular way to bring beautiful gardens indoors. For many who love growing green things but lack the backyard space, this hobby is an enjoyable and affordable option. Craft blogger Enid G. Svymbersky has made a name for herself creating terrariums with a modern twist. Her terrariums are known for having an intriguing and contemporary style. Complete with tips and tricks for re-creating your own stylish eco-systems, Creative Terrariums: 33 Modern Mini-Gardens for Your Home presents cutting-edge designs that will add a decorative organic presence to even the smallest room. Inside, you’ll learn step-by-step how to build and maintain unique mini-gardens full of lush, oxygen-boosting plants. The mini terrarium projects include memo boards, jars, fishbowls, dream catchers, and more that will fit on small tables, bookshelves, and window sills, hang on the wall, or can be displayed in any other tight places in the home.

Reprinted with permission from Creative Terrariums: 33 Modern Mini-Gardens for Your Home by Enid G. Svymbersky and published by Fox Chapel Publishing Company, Inc., 2019.

Published on Sep 5, 2019

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