Tuesday, January 24, 2012

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Tillandsia -- Out of Thin Air

T. bulbosa belize
They looked like something straight out of the movie Avatar, with their colored leaves and strange flowers. And after the first snowfall this winter, they promised to provide a welcome touch of the tropics.

So I decided to try air plants, or tillandsias, again. I had killed the first ones I bought several years ago so this time around I did a little more research. Turns out they have a fascinating background.

Tillandsias originally were thought to be related to mistletoe as both grow on trees. Air plants, however, aren’t parasites the way mistletoe is. Their roots are only used to anchor the plant. They pull their moisture and nutrients from the air through their leaves, not the host.

They actually belong to the bromeliad, or pineapple, family. The name covers more than 500 different species, mostly in Central and South America. It includes the Spanish moss that hangs on trees in the southern U.S.

T. ionantha van hyningii
The category or genus was established in 1753 by Sweden’s Carl Linnaeus, who set up the current system of botanic nomenclature.

It honors Finnish botanist Elias Tillands (1640-1693) who got so seasick going the eight miles by boat from Sweden to Finland that he traveled 200 miles by land on the way back. Not surprisingly, Linnaeus chose a plant that can not bear to stay wet.

Air plants do need moisture, of course. They just don’t need roots to do it. In fact, putting an air plant in soil is a sure fire way to kill it.
On the other hand, misting alone isn't enough. That's what I had done the first time and unfortunately it's still recommended by several Websites. These plants need to be immersed in water, shaken to remove any excess water and then allowed to dry thoroughly.

Exactly how often they need a drink and how long seems to be (excuse the pun) up in the air.

Some sites say once a week is sufficient while others say two or three times. Some recommend you only dunk it for a short while. Others specify an hour or even longer, especially if you’re going on vacation or the plant looks particularly dehydrated.

It seems to depend on the exact variety of air plant you have, with some varieties needing more than others. Guess that makes sense. The same goes for plants in my garden, at least when there isn’t five inches of snow on the ground.

There is agreement that air plants need lots of bright indirect light. So I’m putting them on a table next to a window that opens onto my westward-facing porch. I'm still looking for some way to supplement the paltry sunlight available this time of year.

T. aeranthos clavelles

Other than that, care seems to be pretty easy. Avoid distilled water. Fertilize once a month using either a special bromeliad mixture or an orchid fertilizer at one-quarter strength.

I’m planning to try various ways of displaying my new air plants. For now, they are in some very small pots, with their leaves suspending them in midair. It still seems strange having plants with no visible means of support, that can get what they need out of thin air to produce such beautiful blooms.

There is one sad note – the flowers mean these plants are in their final stages of life. I’m hoping they will produce babies or “pups” at their base before they die. Those plants should then mature and produce "pups" of their own. Sort of a “circle of life” thing. Not unlike Avatar. Or was that another movie?

By Karen Geisler


  1. They really are beautiful plants; thanks for introducing me to them. -Jean

    1. Thanks Jean. And congrats on getting the versatile blogger award!