Tillandsia or air plant is an evergreen, flowering plant from the Bromeliaceae family, indigenous to both North and South America as well as Central America. Their leaves are coated with cells (trichomes) that can rapidly absorb water that collects on them.
Air plants can grow in the air without soil by clinging to anything suitable – branches or bark of trees, bare rocks, in deserts, and on other surfaces that don’t get saturated with water. Some have a token root system and can grow on moving desert sand. They spread in the wild by their light seeds aided by a silky “parachute” like those of dandelions. They have spread naturally in a variety of different environments ranging from rain forests, mountains, swamps, deserts, and rocks, even on the roofs of houses.
Their leaves are generally strapped or triangle-shaped leaves in a rosette with new leaves sprouting from the center forming a funnel to collect water and nutrients. Plants that are silvery colored prefer more sunlight and are more drought-tolerant and live in areas of low precipitation with high humidity while greener varieties in cooler humid climates are inclined to live in the shady lower levels of forests and become dry faster. Their roots are solely designed to attach the plant to any suitable surface.
Most varieties produce vibrant, beautiful, tubular flowers that bloom on stalks with varying colors of red, yellow, purple, and pink to attract pollinators such as moths and hummingbirds among others. The foliage might also change color when flowers bloom, to also attract pollinators.
Air plants reproduce by seeds and offshoots or “pups”. They are not self-fertile, and pollen has to come from other plants of the same type. Some air plants might take months (or years in some cases) to flower. The plant generates offshoots after flowering and usually dies, although some varieties can flower several times before succumbing.
Generally, silvery-colored air plants with stiff foliage require plenty of strong light when compared to air plants with soft foliage. However, it is best to keep air plants away from direct sunlight, as some air plant varieties grow in the shade of trees in the wild.
Due to their basic root structure that is adapted to mainly anchoring the plants, they usually don’t need frequent watering – allow the plant to dry completely before watering it again.
They have a unique and unusual method of survival – their green tissue below the scales becomes visible again when the plant has been watered, enabling the plant to absorb light. When the plant gets dry, it becomes white. This helps these plants to obtain water from the air instead of through their root system.
When grown indoors, they require watering once a week on average, although some varieties can go up to two weeks before needing water. The plant will indicate if it needs more water when the leaf tips curl and turn brown. Over-watering will make leaves become brown or start looking water-logged. Be advised — if leaves become black, that indicates that it has become rotten and will not survive.
The simplest way for watering the plant is to fill a jar or sink with water and immerse the plant for about 30 minutes, then remove it from the water and shake it gently to discard any excess water before placing inverted on a towel to let it drain completely and dry out. Once it is dry, it can be returned to its usual spot. Misting the plant lightly and regularly will augment its water requirements, particularly in winter when humidity levels drop.
Average indoor humidity is sufficient but some varieties might require humidity levels of 65% or more.
The temperature requirements range from 50 to 90°F – this depends on the variety, with some tolerating lows of 14°F. Generally, most air plants need a temperature range between 68 – 77°F, with a low of 50°F to grow well.
They attach themselves to plants, rocks, and bark and absorb water and food with their leaves because they are epiphytes and don’t need to be planted in soil. The roots exist only to fasten the plant to different surfaces. They can be “planted” in loose gravel or perlite but this is not necessary since their watering has to be done by dunking them in water and inverting them on towels to drain.
As mentioned, these plants don’t require soil or need to be potted. Most people grow them in bowls or vases or tie them to wood.
The air plant can be propagated from seeds and offshoots. The plant generally produces offshoots about the time it flowers. These are separated from the plant when they have reached about half the dimensions of the mother.
Air plants are easy to maintain provided that they get enough water, light, appropriate temperature, and humidity. You’ll know that your plant is happy and cared for properly when it flowers.
They can be fed once a month with a pinch of fertilizer suitable for orchids and added to your mister and sprayed onto the leaves.
Pull or cut away dead leaves and prune leaf tips that turn brown.
Avoid exposing the plant to cold or hot drafts as this will make the plant dry.
Rot is deadly for the plant and occurs usually from over-watering. Soft rot can make the leaves and base soft and soggy, often from inside the plant. Always follow the recommended watering schedule, don’t let the plant be immersed for too long, and make sure it dries out properly after watering.
Another problem that affects air plants is dry rot or the plant becoming dry because of under-watering. Curling or browning leaves indicate that the plant has not been watered often enough. It needs to be watered at least once a week.
Air plants don’t like to grow under low lighting, needing a minimum of at least 4 hours of indirect light to thrive. Its coloring will begin fading and it starts wilting.
Over-fertilizing the plant can result in leaf burn and even death. The plant needs to be fed only once a month with diluted fertilizer.
Too little air circulation will cause rot as the plant needs to breathe, while too much air circulation will cause it to dry out.
The pests that commonly affect air plants are mealybugs and scale, remove any badly infested leaves if possible and use rubbing alcohol or spraying them with neem oil to remove them.