Houseplants like clothing and interior design follow trends. There is a revival of the popularity of “air plants”(loose common term), or, more specifically, the sub-group tillandsias. From a design perspective, especially in winter months, these structural plants are useful. They can be frequently moved around, and have the flexibility to be displayed in non-restricted ways. They can be hung vertically, aerially, or just plopped down to bring greenery and create spontaneous ‘intention’.
The name “air plant” is misleading as these delightful plants still require light, water and nutrients. Generally they are rootless; if they have roots they are for attachment purposes rather than nutrient uptake (tillandsias are epiphytes the largest component of the bromeliad family). They are suited to Denver and city living as they do not like the damp and are perfect for scaled-down city living spaces.
Tillandsias fall fairly neatly into two groups: xerophytes (desert, xeric origin) and mesic (tropical rainforest) varieties. The origin of the plant dictates both its leaf structure and texture, as well as its light and water requirements.
Xeric (desert origin) tillandsias need less water, and can therefore sustain drought periods. They will flourish when placed in mid to late Colorado afternoon light. Note that the xeric plants will generally grow more slowly, but can better tolerate being neglected! On the other hand, the mesic group needs more and frequent watering, and flourish when located in plentiful but gentle light (eastern is optimal). Versatile tillandsia plants can be temporarily displayed in a darker setting as long as they are put back into light within a week. Normal house temperatures are fine as “air plants” are not too fussy. All tillandsias will enjoy sitting outdoors in clement weather, however they should not be exposed to extreme temperatures. Helpfully their leaves indicate if their nutrient requirments are being met. As far as fertilizer goes, natural is best and applied to an already hydrated plant which can then either be misted, dunked or soaked (err on the stingy side with the fertilizer to water ratio). Zinaida Sego suggests a balanced NPK food but I have seen success with an extremely high N content, specifically sold for air plants. Feeding should encourage flowering if desired.
Depending on the species, flowers are sometimes insignificant, but often are dramatic single stems. The flowers may be highly fragrant. Some leaves and flowers can undergo specific and beautiful color changes in inflorescence. A few tillandsias produce new growth in a chain pattern after inflorescence, but most tillandsias reproduce new “pups” at the base of the plants (they also produce seeds for airborne distribution). Pups may look quite different in form to the adult plant. This, along with the fact that there are hundreds of naturally occurring tillandsias, plus the addition of recent hybrids, can make identification tricky. Here is a short List of Popular Tillandsias with beautiful images.
Tillandsias are easy to care for and have few problems. However, they will rot in a damp environment, for example: when sitting on moist soil, in a humid terrarium or when droplets are left gathered in their leaves. Do not be concerned about overwatering the tillandsias, just be sure to dry them off quickly. Click for watering suggestions and an image of hydrated verses dehydrated leaves: Three Hydration Methods. Personally I prefer the soak method, however note that this will occupy a sink for awhile! Other people prefer the frequent misting method as it is fairly “zen”, especially if you like a little chat with your plants!
Lastly, I should note, that the only other thing to watch out for are mealybugs. Mealybugs will look like white cotton on the tender new growth and require (in order of severity) a dousing of water wash-offs, mechanical cotton bud removal, or, if extensive, a couple of treatments of natural pesticide (the second later application for eggs that hatch subsequently).
Tillandsias can be tidied up to meet your aesthetic needs, oddly shaped and yellowing leaves can be taken off, inflorescence can be carefully snipped at the base when no longer pleasing. As the old growth at the base of the plant turns brown gently remove these leaves, taking care to look for new pups. Depending on your species, new pups, blushing leaves, and/or inflorescence may be signals that a plant is beginning the dying cycle. This decline process can take a year. In conclusion, how you chose to display your plants is only limited by your imagination! In fact, the photos in this blog are of the same two plants. If you are looking for more information I recommend Air Plants, The Curious World of Tillandsias by Zinaida Sego, of which there are several copies in the Denver Library System. This elegant book documents the history, buying, care and display of air plants in a most beautiful, informative and comprehensive format. The second part of the book is chiefly devoted to design and has useful information as to companion plants, waterproof natural glue, as well as hooking and hanging systems. For example there is a tripod screw, Thigmotrope Satellite, that attaches to the wall, and this is specially designed to “float” “air plants” practically invisibly. If you haven’t been convinced by the beauty of tillandsias this extensive but curated book should persuade you! Another, more basic, internet resource for decorating with “air plants” is Tillandsia Display Ideas.
All Photos. Top: Tillandsia juncea : Tillandsia harrissi. Please correct me if you disagree!
Anne Beletic, Colorado Master Gardener, Denver
Isley, Paul. 1987. Tillandsia. The Worlds Most Unusual Airplants
Sego, Zenaida. 2014. Airplants. The Curious World of Tillandsias