Deb Babcock: Exotic air plants brighten homes
April 10, 2011
Steamboat Springs — In order to break up the seemingly extra-long winter this year, I took a break last week and visited St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Most of the island is a national park, which allowed us to get our hiking legs back exploring the interior mountains and vegetation along the shoreline.
(Yeah, I know. It's a rotten job, but hey, someone's got to write these plant articles, right?)
One of the plants that I saw in abundance, and one we can successfully maintain in our homes in Routt County, is an air plant, also known as tillandsia. It's a pretty easy-to-care-for plant that can adapt to our dry environment if you just submerge the plant in water for a few hours once or twice a week and give it a daily misting if it's in a really sunny spot in your home or in an exceptionally dry environment. You can tell you're under-watering this plant by an unnaturally concave curve of each leaf. Once wetted, the plant should have enough air circulation to dry within four hours.
The plant never should be planted in soil. In fact, that will harm it because it uses the small root system only as an anchor to attach itself to something so it can collect moisture in the air. If it is set in soil or left in water for an extended time, the roots will rot and the plant eventually will die. I would recommend setting the plant in a ceramic bowl or vase without water, attached to a rock, shell or piece of wood, or loosely tying it to a hook or one of those suction cup hangers that you put on the glass wall or door of your shower. Avoid attaching the plant to something made of copper because that will kill the plant. You can use twisty-ties, fishing line, string or even waterproof glue, but not superglue, to attach the plant at its woody base.
The best light for tillandsia is that which is nice and bright but not in direct sunlight. Most of the plants I saw in the wild on St. John were located either in the crook of a tree branch or attached at the end of hanging vine down in the middle of the thick foliage so that sunlight filtered down to them and rain dripped from the leaves above to be captured in the center of these spidery-shaped plants.
Tillandsia plants have a life cycle of one plant growing to maturity and blooming. During its growth cycle, it will produce pups, or small offshoots that will grow into full-size plants. Each plant will bloom just once, and depending upon the species, the bloom will last from a few days to a few months. These plants generally bloom between mid-winter and mid-summer. You can pull or cut the pups from the plant when they reach about half the size of the mother plant and place them in another arrangement. As long as the mother plant is alive, she will continue producing pups for several years after she has bloomed.
When you water your tillandsia, you can use a bromeliad fertilizer (17-8-22) a couple of times a month or other fertilizers such as Miracle-Gro at quarter strength twice a month. This will help with flowering and reproduction.
Tillandsia plants cannot handle frost, but once our local weather is past the final frost date and the nighttime temperatures don't go below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, you can set your plant outdoors for summer. They do best in temperatures between 40 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the CSU Extension Office in Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.