Tillandsias – the Air Plants of the South and how to use them in the landscape

What to do this week
By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening” on 970WFLA

ABC Pest Control Inc. FloridaGarden Tips to Save Time and Money

Some of the most interesting plants you will ever run across in the landscape are the Tillandsias, also known as air plants. You probably pass by a few of these plants every time you walk your garden, but you do not realize they are there. Some remain hidden in the crotches of trees or plants, and others may be growing out in the open, but you never recognized them for their individual beauty. In this article, I would like to delve into the world of the Tillandsias. I will also give you better understanding of where these plants can be found and how to use them in the garden. I hope you enjoy learning a little more about these hidden gems of the garden. Let’s get started.

Air plants or epiphytes, can include mosses, ferns, algae, succulents, most orchids, and of course the bromeliad family. Although this name may suggest they live entirely off of the air alone, this is a misnomer. Epiphytes are any plant which can grow without soil. Usually, these plants attach themselves to other plants or places where they can absorb their moisture and nutrients from the air. Although they do not like the full summer sun, tillandsias cannot live in total darkness, as they still need light to grow. While many air plants use their roots to attract moisture or anchor themselves into the ground, tillandsias only use their roots to attach themselves to another tree or plant and rely on their leaves to collect water, organic debris and the nutrients they provide.  Other bromeliads like pineapples rely on a central cup made up of overlapping leaves to collect water for nourishment.

Central Florida offers a unique habitat for tillandsias due to our warm, humid climate. Hundreds of varieties of these small plants can be found throughout our area. A simple walk through your landscape may reveal several species growing that you may not have ever spotted before. Look closely at your existing trees to spot them growing in the crotches of branches or even in the crevices of the bark. I have seen many of these plants growing on wood fences, rocks, and even on the foliage of shrubs in the landscape. You may also find these plants on the ground or on a fallen branch.

For those of you that want to purchase new and exotic varieties of tillandsias’, I suggest you attend several of the numerous plant shows our area provides such as at the University of South Florida Botanical Garden’s fall plant show coming this October. Events such as these help support the vendors which specialize in many varieties of these fascinating plants. Large and small specimens of these can be purchased at very reasonable prices and because the grower is available to help you with your choices, they can also give you information on caring for the plants you purchase. If you are adventurous, then find a sizeable wooded track and take a walk. You will probably be capable of locating several varieties to add to your collection. You may also be able to find some driftwood that you can re-purpose to use as a mount for your new collection.

Caring for air plants is simple. Direct morning sun and afternoon shade is perfect for growing your new plants. Too much shade or darkness may prevent your plant from blooming, so make sure they have some sun exposure. Plants placed in areas without sun may show no problem for months, but then you may notice the plant losing its color, or the leaves will develop spots before the entire plant falls apart. Direct morning sun can actually help your plants to grow faster and can help produce a more colorful bloom. All tillandsias will flower although some cultivars will produce more striking blooms than others. Some may bloom, but you may never notice them because the blooms are too small or the flowers are green and hard to see.

Yes, some blooms are very fragrant although others are not. The point here is to find those varieties that appeal to your individual preference. Although it may be difficult to predict when your plant may bloom, you will be assured that once they do, you will have many weeks of enjoyment. Some specimens may produce blooms, which can last up to several months depending on the species you are growing.

You can encourage your plant to bloom by providing sunlight, water, and fertilizer. Do not over-apply fertilizer. A Peters or Miracle Grow liquid fertilizer mixed at the one-half strength is sufficient if used once a month as part of your routine watering schedule. Most tillandsias bloom prior to the summer rainy season to ensure their seeds will not be lost in the rain. Once the mother plant blooms, the old plant will begin to die. However, new plantlets will form before the old growth dies continuing the life of the plant. These new offspring can be removed from the mother plant and placed into other areas of the garden or on additional mounting materials. Do not be surprised if you find new plants sprouting up in areas of the garden you were not growing tillandsias. Seed produced from flowering plants can be carried by the wind and lodged in different areas.

Watering air plants properly is essential to their health. Because these plants absorb nutrients through their leaf surfaces, you must make sure all parts of the leaves receive the water they require. This includes the upper, lower, and overlapping leaves. You can accomplish this through misting, dunking, or soaking the plants. Please, do not be concerned about over watering your new plants. As long as your plants are exposed to the air and sunlight, they will dry out naturally. Tillandsias utilize a modified scale which covers their leaves to absorb the water and nutrients that flow across their leaves. These scales or hairs are called Trichomes.

Trichomes have a white or greyish, fuzzy appearance and can vary in size and shape depending on which cultivar you have purchased and where the plant grows naturally. Xeric tillandsias grow in dryer climates where moisture is rare and have visually pronounced trichomes. Trichomes on these plants gather as much water as possible due to the lack of available moisture occurring where xeric tillandsias grow naturally. Mesic tillandsias have smaller, less pronounced trichomes and are found more readily in wet areas. Because these varieties of tillandsias are found in areas where moisture is not a problem, the trichomes found on mesic tillandsias are not as large. Some people have asked me if these structures are insects, and others have tried to remove them because they did not know what they were. Please, leave them alone or you may injure your plant.

Maintaining your air plants is fairly straight forward. Remove any dead leaves at the base of your plants, but be aware that there may be new plantlets forming in this region. Use a sharp pair of scissors to remove any dead leaves and trim off the brown tops of leaves, which appear now and then. Trimming will give your plant a neat, clean look. Pest issues are very rare but if any are spotted, you may use a product like Conserve to control any ant or pest problems, which may develop.

I think you may enjoy the wonderful world of tillandsias. You can find many specimens by taking a short walk and just by being a little more observant. Florida’s climate is excellent for growing many tillandsias and even a small piece of driftwood could be used as a mount for several specimens. With so many textures’ available and their differing sizes and colors, the possibilities are endless in creating the perfect vertical or horizontal garden of tillandsias. For more information on growing these and other air plants, check out the new book called Air Plants by Zenaida Sengo, published by Timber Press. Good Luck and remember, without plants, we would not be here!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>