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Tillandsias need little care but provide much enjoyment

February 27, 2016
Jane Scurich

Tillandsias! Creativity inspired.

Also known as air plants, airplants or tillies, tillandsias seem to be appearing everywhere these days. You’ve probably seen one (or many) of these weird, curly, spikey, intriguing organic creatures at the local nursery — mounted on chunks of bark, suspended from the ceiling, tucked into hanging glass globes or pictured in designer magazines.

Tillandsias are amazingly easy to grow. Their three requirements are light, water and air circulation. They are unique in that they do not thrive in soil. You can basically set them anywhere — in a shell, piled in a basket or tucked into a unique container.

Tillandsias are members of the family Bromeliacea, of which the bromeliad is probably the most well-known. Of the more than 3,000 named species of bromeliads, more than 700 are tillandsias, native to temperate zones throughout Central and South America, as well as southern North America.

One of the most well-known tillandsias is the Spanish moss that grows on trees in the southeastern U.S. It is neither a moss, nor from Spain. Like most tillandsias, it is an epiphyte that absorbs its moisture and nutrients from the air. The Spanish moss we see in California isn’t even a plant. It’s a lichen in the genus Usnea.

Paul Isley traveled through Mexico and Guatemala in the early 1970s, collecting unusual plants that seemed to be growing without touching the soil. Isley’s coffee table book, “Tillandsia: The World’s Most Unusual Airplants” is filled with stunning photographs and detailed care instructions.

I learned they need outdoor sunlight to bloom. I had been keeping my plants indoors, shuffling them in different arrangements, using them in centerpieces, enjoying their artistic shapes, but not seeing buds. I moved a few outdoors and quickly saw not only colorful blooms, but vibrant foliage as well. Now I try to rotate my plants outside on nice days, keeping them out of direct intense sun, but allowing them to experience bright, indirect sunlight.

I’ve been experimenting with air plants for several years now. I won’t kid you — not all have survived. I try to follow research-based recommendations for watering, fertilizing and light requirements. The Bromeliad Society International recommends plants be misted a few times a week and even more often when grown indoors with little humidity. Alternatively, plants may be dunked or soaked for a few minutes to rehydrate the plant. “Sunset Western Garden Book” recommends plants be drenched every few days and submerged for several hours if the leaves curl or dry up. Both authorities agree that plants may be fertilized periodically with dilute liquid fertilizer.

Watering methods may differ from spraying to soaking, but most recommendations are that plants need to drain and not be left sitting in moisture for extended periods. If soaking, use room temperature water and soak in the morning to allow the plant to thoroughly dry, shake moisture from the plant and allow the crown to drain.

My experience has been that these delightful plants are highly adaptable. Recently we were away for three weeks. I left tillandsias inside (no heat) and in covered areas outside, and returned to find them all in good condition. While I don’t encourage neglect, I can recommend air plants for folks who are not always available to maintain their plants on a rigid schedule.

The largest collection of tillandsias I have seen on public display is at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. Giant specimens, nurtured for decades, are found throughout the greenhouse. Observing them in a naturalized setting may help you visualize how you want to display them in your home.

For more information on acquiring and growing your own, read “Air Plants: A Beginners Guide To Understanding Air Plants, Growing Air Plants and Air Plant Care” by Louise Harvey.

Once you have a few to play with, “Air Plants” by Bay Area native Zenaida Sengo will give you fabulous DIY ideas for designing and decorating.

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