Jane Jordan is a horticulturist and has studied and worked at the RHS botanical gardens in Cannington, England. She now lives in Sarasota, Florida. Alongside her passion for horticulture, she is also a novelist.

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Must Be Something in the Air
by Jane Jordan    

Air plants (Tillandsia spp.), as the name suggests, do not require soil to grow. These curious epiphytes are part of the bromeliad family, they are perennial and have a natural tendency to cling to tree branches, rocks or whatever they can get a grip on.  

Even though they grow on other plants for support, they are not parasitic, it is a misconception that they affect or damage the host plant. They merely rely on the host plant to gain an advantageous position for the most favorable sun exposure. Tillandsias root systems are designed to anchor to plants or surfaces on which the plant can live, in this way they obtain moisture and nutrients from the air and rain.  

Tillandsias are often divided into two groups, mesic and xeric. Mesic tillandsias grow in rainforests or in shade, where the air is always moderately humid. Xeric tillandsias grow in deserts and can live in hot dry climates or dry tropical forests.  

Tillandsias are found in the south Eastern United States, also in parts of Mexico and the Caribbean, but thrive in Florida’s humid atmosphere. When growing non-native species check that your plant is suited to you USDA hardiness zone. Generally, non-native tillandsias should not be outside if temperatures drop below 40 F.  

One of the most iconic native tillandsias we see in Florida is Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides). Ball moss (Tillandsia recurvate) is also a commonly found. Other Florida species are broad needleleaf (T. simulata), southern needleleaf (T. setacea), and Bartram’s air plant (T. bartramii).  

Native species of tillandsias evoke a feel of old Florida and the Deep South. Even more so when observing an avenue of live oak hung with long gray beards of Spanish moss. They are so much a part of our natural environment that we take them for granted, and barely notice their presence. But there are tillandsias that can make you sit up and take notice. These species with their geometric forms or cushion-like structures have individual sculptural qualities, and when combined with colorful vibrant blooms they are fascinating plants to grow. Adding to the allure, some tillandsia flowers are delicately fragrant.  

If that is not enough incentive to seek out and grow tillandsias, then consider that they are extremely low maintenance, needing only light, air circulation, plus an occasional mist of water and fertilizer.  

Tillandsias are readily available online, and often found at specialized nurseries. It is well worth seeking out these nurseries with a visit in mind, as numerous plants and many different species are often available and often in flower. Specialized nurseries not only make an interesting day out, they give you a chance to talk with the growers of these amazing plants, who often impart knowledge and answer questions that you did not even think to ask.  

All tillandsias bloom, some have small insignificant flowers while others are large and spectacular. The length of blooming depends on the species, but colorful bracts can linger for many weeks after the flower has died. Blooms are dependent on the maturity of the plant, in their natural habitat they bloom at the beginning of the dry season.  

Tillandsias require bright, indirect sunlight; they can even take some direct sunlight for short periods of time. By contrast, they will not thrive in dimly lit locations, and when grown indoors, lack of light is the most common reason tillandsias decline.  

When introducing a new tillandsia to you home, it is advisable to dunk the entire plant in water or pass it through a stream of water rotating all the time for the water to reach the center of the plant. This process is especially important with mail ordered plants. After the plant has been saturated, hold it upside down to remove any excess water from the crevices.  

Curled leaves indicate that your tillandsia is dehydrated. If kept indoors, mist them once or twice a week dependent on how much you use your air conditioning or heating. Avoid shocking the plant with cold water, use lukewarm water instead.  

Do not display your tillandsia in a container that will collect water, after misting it is important your tillandsias dry completely, especially if placing back in a terrarium.  

Tillandsias need nutrients to survive, when grown in a native habitat they get everything they need from the air, but indoors or when kept in covered spaces such as on a lanai, they will need to be fertilized. There are many specialized fertilizers formulated just for air plants. I have had success with a tillandsia fertilizer 16-9-25. I use it once a week and my tillandsias are thriving.  

Once a tillandsia begins to produce offspring (pups) the parent plant begins to decline. The pups produced often cover the shrinking parent plant until it eventually disappears. Pups can be gently pulled apart to start new plants, or left to clump. Tillandsias are slow growing, but over time, clumps become large and impressively beautiful, especially when flowering.  

Decaying foliage is a natural part of the growing process; any unsightly leaves can be easily trimmed away. Even the parent plant, once shriveled, can be carefully removed if the pups have not grown over it.  

Tillandsias are relatively pest and disease free, provided they are kept healthy. Mealybugs have been known to occasionally attack tillandsias. If that happens, submerge the whole plant in water to dislodge them or remove insects with a damp cotton ball. Complete infestations may require treatment with a pesticide. They can develop fungus and rot, but this normally happens when they have been left in standing water.  

Tillandsias can grow on or in a variety of interesting and creative surfaces. Bark, rock, or hanging glass globes make interesting displays. I like the hanging baskets specifically designed for these plants, but there are numerous artistic ways to display them.  

Be warned: Tillandsias are addictive. I guarantee that once you own one, soon you will want to collect them all. 


Photos courtesy of Jane Jordan.


Posted: 03/05/19   RSS | Print


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