Grow and Decorate with Air plants this Holiday Season

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URBANA, Ill. – Plant enthusiasts should check out tillandsia this holiday season, according to University of Illinois Extension educator Kelly Allsup.

"Even if you describe yourself as a brown thumb and are allergic to soil, you are going to love growing these super easy plants. The strappy tillandsia plants come in different sizes, textures, and colors and you are sure to find one to fit your holiday décor," Allsup says.

Tillandsia is a type of epiphyte or "air plant." In the wild, they use their minimal root system to attach themselves to trees and rocks, absorbing moisture and nutrients through small scales on their leaves. These scales give the plants their unique silver or gray appearance. "Air plants resemble a little octopus with their spreading tentacles," Allsup says.

"They have been made popular as a houseplant and generally are easy to care for," Allsup notes. "They enjoy indirect sun within the home or a shadier location if placed outside. Watering is critical. We recommend watering tillandsia once per week by submerging the entire plant in a bowl for 30 minutes to 2 hours. Allow them to dry a couple of hours before putting back into an enclosed environment. Misting can be done once or twice a week depending on the season."

Tillandsia flowers range from white to bold orange, red, purple, or pink. Blossoms can quickly fade away or persist for several months. The flowers are long, tubular to funnel shaped, with showy floral parts. If they do not bloom, this may be an indication of insufficient light.

Allsup explains that there are two main types of tillandsias. "Some are gray and some are green. The gray kinds are native to tropical forests where long droughts are common. Their gray leaves reflect sunlight and conserve moisture. These can be mounted and grown in bright filtered light. Green-leaved tillandsias are native to rainy, humid tropical forests and are grown best in less light inside containers to keep them moist. Our Illinois winter homes are most appropriate for the gray kinds."

Allsup recommends the following tillandsias for Illinois:

• Tillandsia caput-medusae has silvery twisty leaves, a swollen base, and a red flower stalk.

• Tillandsia plumosa boasts silvery leaves and can be grown on rocks or limbs.

• Tillandsia utriculata v. pringleyi has delicate thin silver leaves with a flowering stalk that is red to orange or pink.

Tillandsias can be displayed in a variety of artistic ways. For example, Allsup recommends creating a unique wreath by using the formed grapevine wreaths found in craft stores as a base. "Glue a variety of tillandsias, either in on one part of the wreath for an asymmetrical effect or throughout and then add small pine cones, colorful mosses, or miniature festive decorations," she says.

"Or create a tillandsia landscape in a lantern, square glass vase, or under a cloche," Allsup suggests. "Fill it with moss or aquarium gravel for a base, place in tillandsias, and adorn with pinecones, miniature décor, and driftwood. You could also place them in wine glasses and line them up along the center of the holiday table.

"For a unique gift," Allsup adds, "place tillandsia in a clear plastic or glass ornament with colorful moss, or glue tillandsia to a wine cork or crystal."