Don’t have time for the upkeep of a typical houseplant? Consider a Tillandsia.
Commonly known as an air plant, Tillandsia grow almost anywhere without soil and with little watering. This forgiving plant not only fends for itself while you work but doesn’t require a plant-sitter when you take a vacation.
Air plants also provide a unique accent to the home. Design possibilities are only limited by your imagination because a Tillandsia isn’t restricted to a flower pot. This plant is a conversation piece when nestled inside a seashell beside a sink, attached to a piece of driftwood mounted on a wall, or resting atop a glamorous candlestick holder on a side table.
Tillandsia belong to the Bromeliaceae family, a genus of over 600 species. Depending on the species, they thrive in arid to tropical zones throughout the deserts, rainforests and mountainous terrain of Central and South America, the West Indies and the southern United States.
Also known as an epiphyte, an air plant obtains moisture and nutrition not from soil but air through leaves that contain tiny scales called trichomes. Trichomes are microscopic hair-like structures that reflect intense sunlight away from a leaf’s surface, which gives the plant its familiar gray color and also enables the plant to retain water for long time periods. When growing a Tillandsia, remember to take into consideration whether your plant is the thick-leafed variety that grows in drought-prone areas or the thinner-leafed variety found in tropical locations with plenty of humidity.
This particular epiphyte was named Tillandsia by Carolus Linnaeus after Dr. Elias Tillandz (originally Tillander), who was a Swedish botanist and physician (1640-1693). The aerial lifestyle of the Tillandsia certainly caught the attention of the scientific community. Research indicates that an ingredient of the plant is used as an herbal supplement for treating pollen allergies, and that in 2002 the Tillandsia was used for biomonitoring of air pollution in Florence, Italy because of its trichomes’ ability “to catch aerosols and the particles dispersed in the air.”
A Tillandsia can be a tad finicky about its bath, preferring morning to evening and weekly to daily. The reason to avoid nighttime soaks is the plant’s nightly preoccupation with transpiration and vaporization, opening their stomata to exchange gas and oxygen. In other words, if an air plant is wet, it can’t breathe.
Here’s what to do: Once a week submerge the plant in water for approximately two hours. A clean glass bowl is preferable. Add room-temperature water. Place the plant upside down with the roots sticking up out of the water. When the soak time is complete, shake off as much moisture as possible. Next, rest your Tillandsia with its roots in the air on a clean cotton towel until dry, approximately two to three hours. Notice the leaves are no longer gray but green. Reposition the plant in its holder.
Do not use distilled water or softened water. Filtered water, bottled drinking water, rain water, or water from a pond or aquarium are preferred. If you want to use tap water, allow the water to sit overnight to dissipate the chlorine. And don’t forget to provide your tropical thin-leaf Tillandsia with more moisture than the drought tolerant variety with thick leaves.
Air plants favor bright filtered light with an optimum temperature between 50-90 degrees. Avoid full sun or placement close to a sunny window as the Tillandsia will not survive next to unshaded glass in an overheated room. For further information on lighting, including the use of incandescent grow lights and high-pressure sodium lamps,
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Tillandsia bloom when mature, which takes from three to five years. Before the flowering phase, the leaf color in some species changes from green to pinkish-red. Unfortunately, air plants are monocarpic, meaning they flowers once in lifetime and then die. Flowers last from a week to months depending upon the species.
Two months after the flowers shrivel up, pups start to grow around the base of the parent plant. Pups are new plants that can be twisted free when they are a third to half the size of the parent or left to clump together until all the leaves of the mother plant dry up, die back and are removed. Do not toss out the parent before she produces all her pups.
In the meantime, if you’re fortunate enough to view the brilliant day-glo color shades of a Tillandsia bloom and be blessed with a new generation of pups, start thinking about friends’ birthdays and holiday gift-giving. An air plant peeking out of a small simple seashell is an appreciated gift and a welcomed houseplant that really does “almost” take care of itself.
Launa Herrmann is a Master Gardener with the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fairfield. If you have gardening questions, call the Master Gardener’s office at 784-1322.