University of Illinois Extension

Tillandsia - Spectacular Air Plants

Unusual looking plants are showing up in some very unusual places, said Greg Stack, University of Illinois Extension horticulturist.

“The plants look like tufts of grass, and they are often seen inside of glass globes suspended from little stands on the tops of tables and desks; attached to pieces of bark, cork or wood; suspended from ceilings on fishing line; or laid on a bed of rocks in a shallow dish,” said Stack. “These plants are catching the eye of many indoor gardeners, because they appear to offer interesting colors and textures while seeming to require minimal care. It’s as if they almost survive on the air itself, because you never see them in a pot of soil. And that is exactly why they are often referred to as ‘air plants.’”

Air plants, whose formal name is Tillandsia, are members of the bromeliad family. There are more than 500 different species that actually make very attractive houseplants. Most tillandsia use their root systems to attach themselves to trees and rocks and absorb needed moisture and nutrients through their leaves. This makes them epiphytes, plants that use something else for support while not really harming what it is they are attached to. Absorption occurs through small scales that give the plants their unique silver or gray appearance.

“With the popularity of these plants, they are starting to appear just about everywhere and entice shoppers to buy a few as ‘fashionable accessories’ for decorating,” he said. “Despite their carefree appearance they still require some attention if you want to keep them happy and healthy.”

The three most important requirements for keeping tillandsias in good condition are bright light, but not direct sun, good air circulation and water.

“Indoors a south, east or west window provide ideal locations for allowing the plant to receive bright, filtered light. During the summer, they enjoy being outside hung from a tree or other location where they can receive light shade and protection from direct sun,” Stack said.

Watering is the next critical requirement. Indoors tillandsias like to receive water about two to four times a week in the form of very heavy misting to the point of runoff. That interval may shorten a bit especially during the winter months when indoor conditions tend to become drier during heating season. Allow the plant to dry between waterings.

“You can tell if the plant is not receiving enough water by looking at the leaves,” he explained. “If they start to curl or roll that indicates dehydration. If that happens, submerge the plant in water overnight to rehydrate and then shake the excess water from the plant before returning it to it’s display location. The green leaf forms need a little bit more moisture than the gray leaf types.”

Tillandsias also like good air circulation. The air helps to dry the plant between watering and prevents disease.

While not absolutely necessary a light application of fertilizer about once a month will keep your plant vigorous. Use a liquid type of fertilizer with an analysis such as 10-5-5 and dilute it to about onequarter the suggested dosage. This is then applied to the plant in the normal watering process.

“Blooms, if they occur are exotic and beautiful and can last from days to months,” he said. “While blooms are not guaranteed, the normal bloom cycle is in the late winter and midsummer.

“Remember that tillandsias are epiphytic and don’t need a pot full of soil to grow in so that opens up many possibilities of how you might want to display them. They are often mounted on to something such as bark, cork, rocks, or driftwood to name a few. They are also displayed inside of glass globes that are suspended or can even be hung individually in clusters with fishing line from the ceiling.”

Given this method of display and the fact that they are exotic looking to begin with, a grouping of tillandsia can almost make you think that you are looking at a living coral reef.

“Whatever you choose to use as a mount, be sure that the material does not hold water,” Stack said. “Tillandsia can easily be mounted to cork, wood, rocks, bark or any other solid surface using any commercially available adhesive such as liquid nails or hot glue. They can also be tied to the mount using wire.

“Tillandsias allow you to display plants much like living pieces of art work either on a table, hung on walls or in clear glass globes suspended from a ceiling.”

These carefree, colorful and interesting plants can be in just about any type of growing environment. Just keep in mind that water is a key to healthy tillandsia. Misting three to four times a week is a good recommendation. They need adequate light. Remember, bright light but no direct sun. Tillandsias are “air plants” found growing on trees and rocks. Putting them in soil or using moss to attach them to mounting surfaces keeps them too wet and they will rot. Finally too much fertilizer can harm them. A reduced amount of fertilizer applied sparingly is all they need.