Deb Babcock: A plant that lives on air alone

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

Looking kind of like a punk hairdo, Tillandsia air plants can be quite spectacular and a focal point of a houseplant array with their spiky leaves sticking out in all directions. Tillandsia are members of the Bromeliad family.

An epiphyte, this plant needs no soil in which to grow. In fact, most of these plants don't even grow roots. Instead, they attach themselves to rocks, tree trunks, or other plants without harming the host or anchor. Other epiphytes with which you may be familiar include most orchids and all staghorn ferns.

Gardeners can use pottery, coral, fountains, mirrors, windows, driftwood or most anything you like as an anchor for your Tillandsia. Simply affix the plant with silicone adhesive, glue, wire (not copper), staples, fishing line, anything that won't dissolve when wet. Or you can anchor the plant in gravel or sand. Some people tie the plant to fishing line and hang it from a ceiling or entryway.

Tillandsia obtains its nutrients and water from the humidity in the air or from dampness on its host. Rain water, dust, and even rotting leaves and decomposing insects are caught in the leaves of this plant to provide food. The leaves of Tillandsia are covered with silvery scales that help collect moisture and dust.

Because it is so dry here in the Steamboat area, household air plants will need a daily misting of water or a 5 minute dip in water every few days. Collected rainwater is preferable, but tap water will suffice. The plant should be kept in partial shade and exposed to filtered or subdued sunlight. These plants require temperatures no lower than 50 degrees or higher than 90 degrees.

Native to Central America, there are more than 600 species of Tillandsia. It may take 5 to 20 years for an air plant to flower, but some of those flowers are worth the wait. Among the most spectacular of the Tillandsia are T. Abdita with its maroon leaves and purple flowers; T. ionantha, which blooms bright red with a purple spike; T. cyanea, with a striking pink paddle-like bloom; T. Bergeri, which reproduces quickly and has purple orchid-like blooms; T. cacticola, an exotic pinkish/purple flower that looks somewhat like crab claws; and the beautiful T. leonamiana, with its large peach colored bloom.

After they bloom, Tillandsia produce 'pups' that you can detach once they are half-grown and start another plant or form a colony of them.

If you are unable to use rainwater to moisten and feed your plant, spritz on a Bromelaid fertilizer a couple times a month to encourage growth and blooming. If Bromelaid fertilizer is not available, other liquid fertilizers at 1/4 strength also will suffice.

There are numerous places to purchase Tillandsia including local and regional nurseries as well as online at sites such as airplants.com or airplants4u.com.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or email: gardeners@co.routt.co.us.

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