Deb Babcock: Tillandsia a plant living on air alone
October 23, 2011
Steamboat Springs — Looking like strange, not-of-this-world beings, 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 might be familiar with include most orchids and all staghorn ferns.
Gardeners can use pottery, coral, fountains, mirrors, windows, driftwood or most anything as an anchor for Tillandsia. Simply affix the plant with silicone adhesive, glue, wire (not copper), staples, fishing line, or anything else 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 five-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 five 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; and T. cyanea with a striking pink paddle-like bloom. I have one of these in my studio right now in full bloom. Other impressive varieties include 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 per month to encourage growth and blooming. If Bromelaid fertilizer is not available, other liquid fertilizers at one-quarter strength also will suffice.
Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Routt County Extension Office. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.