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Life on Air - Tillandsia

Tropical Cousins...

The first encounter most people have with air plants, or tillandsia as they are known botanically, is the pineapple.  It is the quintessential symbol of the tropics, alongside a palm tree and a beachball.  They are absolutely delicious (especially when a tropical cocktail is involved) and are the only air plant humans consume. 

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 The pineapple was brought back to Europe in 1493 by Christopher Columbus and those who were able to afford the luxury of tasting them were Noble.  Pineapples could only be grown alongside the compost heap from the horse stables, and only those of notability could afford such luxury.  Utter-elegance that tastes like tropical-sunshine needs to be grown next to the stinky-compost heap… a statement only a gardener can fully comprehend!

Jewel of a Plant

We now know air plants as fashionable plant “accessories” and are often displayed as objects of desire.  The exquisitely-curled silvery foliage of tillandsia xerographica always gets the attention it deserves.  Setting it alone on a mirror will do.  Use it in a wedding bouquet or boutonniere and you’re botanically in-vogue. 

The next time you need a gift for someone who is not green-thumbed, consider an air plant scene in a terrarium or fishbowl. Fill it with sand, crystals, mosses, or mushrooms for fantastic living-works-of-art that are unique and cherished living gifts.

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The Many Sides of Tillandsia

Air plants are a huge and handsome family of nearly 750 different species, plus hybrids, so you have plenty of options when shopping for them.  They are epiphytes, meaning they do not need to be potted in soil, but rather prefer to attach themselves to trees whereby the anchor themselves with their roots.  You can do this by simply using a non-toxic, water-resistant glue (E-6000 or fingernail glue will do) to adhere them to the desired mount.

Some air plants are circular and small, some are curly and grow like lichen (called “Spanish Moss”), others are rigid and could poke your eye out, and some are smooth and sessile. 

Honestly, if I were a plant, this is the family I would want to belong to.  They are gorgeous moisture-and-sun-loving creatures that are so adaptable, they can even become problematic in tropical areas where they grow all over power-lines.  What a problem to have!

Bloomin' Beautiful

More bonuses: all air plants flower!  There’s no need to look for one that has a flower forming, as yours will bloom at some point while in your care.  Some are even fragrant.  When they are about to flower, they will naturally “blush,” transforming from their greenish-grey colour to a pinkish hue. 

Eventually their purple and yellow tubular flowers will emerge from the flower spike; a totally-tropical winning combination.  Most only bloom for a day or so, so it’s not truly the flower that we’re infatuated with, it’s the foliage. 

Due to their popularity and demand, the plant available to you have been propagated in a laboratory or by division from mother plants.  Air plants have this fantastic ability to grow baby-plants around the base of dying foliage, called “pups.”  These pups can be carefully removed from the mother plant by carefully wiggling them off the base of the mother.

When you have plants in your care for a number of years, you will be able to pass some along to friends and other gardeners.

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Keeping Your Air Plants Happy

Home cultivation is simple; mist the plants every second day in the spring and summer, and every three to four days in winter.  The plant should dry out within two-hours of being misted.  If the foliage remains wet for longer than two-hours, consider removing the plant and misting it outside of the vessel.  

The foliage of air plants is covered with trichomes; tiny hairs on the outer layer of foliage that absorbs moisture and nutrients.  If these trichomes dry out too much, you are left with an air plant-skeleton.  If you over-saturate the trichomes, they become limp and can rot off.  The key is finding the balance.  Follow the Tilly Tips below for super-success!

 Tilly Tips!

  • Expose them to bright, diffused light, and your plants should survive indefinitely.  Terrariums or glass cloches (domes) are other fantastic ways to grow air plants at home.
  • They do not need to be planted, but mounted or set-in to the nooks of branches, or in wood or clay pots, onto wood branches (avoid bark), drift wood, stones, crystals, or into terrariums or orbs.
  • Silvery-Stiff air plants require more sun, less water.
  • Green-Sessile air plants require less sun, more water.
  • If you have forgot to wet your plant and it looks dehydrated, submerge the plant in room temperature water for an hour.

Being one of the most fashionable plants on earth, air plants have certainly secured their position in the plant-world as a highly-sought-after Living Ornament.  Always buy air plants from trustworthy nurseries that support the green-industry trade, and not plants picked from the wild.  Support your local nurseries and visit them often to experience an ever-changing selection of ALL things green!


Chris Janko is a BC PlantsMan + Garden Communicator. Follow him as he GRoWs, COoKs & DRiNKs his way through botany. Check his blog for more details + photos!  


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