Believe it or not, some plants exist without needing their roots. They drink from the air, eat from the dust, and largely just hang around on other plants. These are Tillandsia, also known as air plants. Coated in special hairs to absorb moisture, they’ll often appear silvery and slightly fuzzy. Tillandsia tend to grow in a rosette, a balanced form where all the leaves meet in the middle. In short, these are pocket-sized bundles of plant that can be put nearly anywhere and don’t live in dirt. Tillandsia is not just a single species, too. It’s actually a genus with about 650 species in it – perennial, evergreen plants with delightfully compact forms.
I got my first air plant at Trader Joe’s more than a couple years ago. It was sold at first in a tall glass cup with sand at the bottom, and I never knew the species. I sprayed the plant from the top to keep it moist, the sand helped the water drain, and the cup kept the humidity in. Arguably, it was a great home for my little tillandsia. Later, I decided to move it in with another epiphyte, Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides). They lived happily every after for a while, until the inside of their repurposed lantern home started to rust. They had to move out in a hurry. Since then, the two tillandsia have lived at times on pieces of wood scrap, hanging from strings, or sitting on the computer.
An air plant is a very stoic, calm plant that can find a way to live alongside you in almost any conditions. They can be placed on or in nearly anywhere, and can even be glued or tied to objects for the fun of it – while surviving just fine. Just make sure it gets some light and gets dunked in water here and again.
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These plants tend to have light-green to silvery foliage, due to the special cells (trichomes) that grow over their surface. These special cells are able to readily absorb water that gathers on the plant’s surface in the form of rain, morning dew, high humidity, or your at-home plant misting and dunking.
The plants in this genus are referred to as epiphytes (plants that grow on plants) because that’s how they often are found. Some species are known as aerophytes, and have roots that keep them somewhat in place in shifting desert sands. Occasionally, you’ll also see them growing on power lines or chain link fencing.
Northern Mexico and south-eastern United States, Mesoamerica, and the Caribbean to mid Argentina
These plants don’t drink like your regular plants. This plant doesn’t draw on water from its roots like a normal plant, nor from its internal stores like a succulent. Instead, the plant is covered in fine hairs called trichomes, which enable the plant to absorb water and nutrients from its surface.
If you’re caring for them at home, they’ll rely on a combination of misting and submerging – literally submerging the plant wholly in water. Provided the air is humid, they can get by with some misting every few days and the occasional bath every week or two. Misting typically won’t be sufficient on its own, but it’ll do fine as a touch-up between the deeper waterings. To water a tillandsia more thoroughly, submerge it in water for about 20 to 30 minutes. Shake the plant to get any excess water out, and you’re good to go.
The plant should be able to dry out in 1-3 hours after watering. Longer than that, and the pooled water can start to become an issue. Shorter than that, and your plant is likely in too dry of an environment to be comfortable.
During winter time, the humidity lowers quite a bit indoors as well as outdoors. I give my indoor tillandsia a bath once a week during winter, submerging it completely in water for at least 15 minutes. During summer, I make sure to keep it well away from any direct sun to prevent rapid drying and sunburns.
These plants are very hardy and have evolved to absorb moisture to a much greater degree than many other plants – they can withstand a drought, but not necessarily a repeated flood. Don’t let your tillandsia sit in water as a part of its normal home.
Don’t water with distilled water, nor softened water. Distilled water has no nutrients, while softened water can contain harmful levels of salts. Instead, normal tap or bottled water is fine. Let the tap water sit in the open for a while for the chlorine to dissipate before soaking your plant.
In Florida or the bayou, you may never need to water an outdoor tillandsia. There’s quite enough rain and humidity to take care of them naturally.
Air plants prefer bright, filtered light. They do very well within a few feet of a bright window, provided they don’t get direct sunlight for more than a brief while.
Some species can survive in full sun, though they dry out quite quickly in any environment that isn’t highly humid. The brighter the light, the more watering that will be required – in high sun during summer, it may need to be misted every day. On top of that, they could potentially get a sunburn.
They can survive in full-spectrum fluorescent light. Having the light closer (for higher intensity) is best; they can thrive as close to a foot from the bulb, and show good signs at a few feet distant.
For people growing tillandsia indoors without fancy lighting – my desktop tillandsia only gets regular office fluorescent light, and grows incredibly slowly, though it’s still thriving, and has had a pup since it’s been living on the desk.
These plants thrive in indoor temperatures. They can be killed by frost or excessive heat, so try to keep them between 50 – 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
You can add a pinch of bromeliad (17-8-22) or orchid fertilizer to your mister if you feel the plant needs it. Alternatively, you can add a few drops to the water you soak it in.
I know that mine have gone at least 2 years (and counting) without fertilizing, so there’s not much need. I use normal tap water for the soaking and misting, and it seems to be sufficient. I’m sure the pollution helps a bit too.
If you are watering your Tillandsia by soaking it in aquarium water, it won’t need the fertilizer as there will be enough dissolved content to satisfy them.
No soil. Do not put it in soil, it may rot. This is called an air plant for a reason. Also – this won’t survive hydroponics.
Root & Pot
These plants don’t have functional roots, at least not as far as normal root functions. The plant can’t draw on water reserves from its roots, and they are largely vestigial. This also means you don’t ever have to worry about root spreading or tangling, and can keep these plants as close together as you’d like (provided they get sufficient light and are watered properly).
There’s no need for a pot, though tillandsia look great when mounted on the wall or arranged in a scene. Just make sure you’re able to water the tillandsia properly – either by misting it in place or removing it from its setting to soak in water.
If the plant is being mounted on wood, make sure to avoid pressure-treated wood. The copper can kill the plant. Similarly, do not wire the tillandsia to a display using copper wire. However, feel free to use glue or fishing line, string, rocks, or just about anything. Make sure to let hot glue cool a moment before pressing the plant on it so it doesn’t cook.
Size & Speed
Some leaves will inevitably begin to die as the plant gets older. Often, you can simply tug lightly on the leaf to test it. If the leaf pulls free easily, then it was meant to be pruned. If the leaf holds on, it still has some life in it. You can prune off the dead portions if you’d like.
During their lifecycle, they’ll produce pups, small copies of the plant that grow from the base of the rosette. This could happen at any time – before, during, or after flowering. Typically, each plant can produce a handful of pups during its life.
Let the pup grow until it’s about 1/3 to 1/2 the size of the parent plant. At this point, you could try to remove the pup if you want, or let both plants continue growing together until the parent plant naturally dies.
To remove the pup, grab it and the parent plant by the base (where the leaves come together), and gently twist them apart. If they don’t come apart readily, you can cut them apart with a downward motion, trying not to cut too deeply into each plant’s base. I used a double sided razor after a light tug to separate the latest pup, and neither plant has shown signs of distress afterward.
The mother plant will continue to make pups, even after grown pups are removed. Continue watering and caring for the plant as normal, and you should potentially get more than a few.
Tillandsia can also be started from seed, though the process is quite involved. Typically, seeds need to be suspended in a mesh netting of some kind and provided regular moisture without growing algae. However, even copper-free algae killers may pose an issue to the health of the seedling. Once they reach appropriate size to be removed, the actual process of removing them from the mesh can tear apart the plant – so be very gentle.
Flower & Fruit
Tillandsia have a pretty straightforward growth cycle. They’ll grow and grow until they bloom. They’ll bloom once in their lifecycle. Flowers can last days or weeks, and different species will bloom at different times. Typically, they’ll bloom from midwinter through summer, though indoors care and the environment can change that.
They’ll die sometime after flowering, though this may take years depending on the care and the species of plant.
Flowers are typically bright, ranging from red to yellow to purple, and occasionally other colors. These bright colors help attract pollinators, and sometimes the whole plant will change colors to do aid in the effect.
Tillandsia are capable of producing seeds, though seedlings have many barriers to growth.
Generally, they’re considered non-toxic. However, they’re typically eaten by animals, which value the high sugar content.
Pests & Diseases
Mealy bugs may attack the plant to get at the sap inside.
Signs of underwatering show up as increasing concavity of the leaves.
This plant enjoys being watered more in the morning than at night. Because of this plant’s sophisticated breathing system, it can only absorb carbon dioxide at night. If the plant is submerged in water in the evening, it may suffocate.
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