It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s an air plant!
A what? An air plant, or by its technical name, Tillandsia, which is a genus in the Bromeliad family.
You have seen them growing in terrariums, glass baskets and other unexpected places. I have them growing in a shallow wooden bowl on a windowsill. If you made a New Year’s resolution to keep a plant alive this year, this is your plant.
Most air plants are epiphytes, meaning they use their root system to attach themselves to a host, but not to absorb nutrients. They get what they need from the air and water. If planted in soil, the plant will often develop a fungus or root rot.
These plants are native to Mexico, Central and South America. They don’t like the cold or the direct sun. Remember air plants often attach themselves to trees and are shaded by the tree leaves. Indirect or dappled sunlight is ideal.
The best way to water your air plant is to submerge it in a bowl of water for about thirty minutes. When time is up, make sure the plant is dry before you return it to its container home. I turn them upside down and give a gentle shake to remove any excess water before I repot them.
The Tillandsia often has long, slender leaves and new growth comes from the center of the plant. The varieties with silver-tinted foliage are the most drought-tolerant — the greener the leaves, the faster the plant will dry out. Misting between soaking is a good idea, but be light-handed. Remember, this plant does not want to sit in water.
If you have neglected your air plant and the leaves are looking dry and beginning to curl, don’t despair. There is still hope. Place your plant in water overnight, giving it plenty of time to rehydrate. After this extended watering, the plant should begin to look more open with better color and stronger leaf structure.
Air plants are having a moment. Because they are easy to grow and small, I have seen them attached to magnets, driftwood and, of course, in terrariums. It is suggested they could be attached to orchids or other tropical plants because they thrive in the same environment. I think of them as mostly indoor plants, but with proper care and water, they will be okay outside during the warmer months.
I like the idea of grouping them in clusters either together or in separate containers placed among other plants. They add to the mix and keep indoor gardens interesting. I have recently begun hanging plants inside. I have added air plants in glass globes above my home office desk and they make me smile. I’ve been into macramé plant hangers too — I think I have a throwback, groovy vibe happening, and I like it.
Regardless of how or where you display your Tillandsia, or air plants, have fun discovering something new. It’s January and the ground is still frozen, so growing plants in the air is a creative idea until we can get to our outside gardens.