From the Greek words epi or ‘upon’ and phyto meaning ‘plant’, the term epiphyte refers to plants that anchor themselves and grow on another plant or other inanimate material. They are not parasitic, only using the host plant to reach locations where there’s adequate exposure to light, rainwater, and air for their own growth (1).
- What Are Air Plants?
- Origin and Description
- Do Air Plants Bloom?
- Do Air Plants Need Soil?
- What is the Lifespan of Tillandsias?
- How to Take Care of Air Plants
- Best Air Plants for Indoor Use
Epiphytes, like tillandsias or air plants, are exceptional plants, able to persist with grace even with limited resources available to them which is why they are some of the best contemporary and easy to care for houseplants of today.
What Are Air Plants?
Air plants are those that grow without needing a substrate or soil to provide them nutrients and moisture. They generally draw these necessities from the air instead. There are many kinds of air plants ranging from orchids, ferns, mosses, and algae (1).
A big group of epiphytes belong to the Bromeliaceae family, known as the genus Tillandsia that ‘air plants’ is commonly used to refer to this group by growers.
Origin and Description
The largest member of the bromeliads, Tillandsia houses over 700 plant species and varieties, most of them found in Latin America (2). They do not just grow on trees but on rocks, cliffs, driftwoods, and other sturdy plants too.
Tillandsias are literally foliage plants, relying heavily on their leaves to absorb water and nutrients from the air (1). Their stiff, often wiry leaves have special fuzzy scales called trichomes which allow the plant to harness moisture and food in their surroundings (3).
Do Air Plants Bloom?
Tillandsias are slow-growing but when they bloom, they produce some of the best flowers. Exposure to maximum allowable light, water, and fertilizer encourages blooming for these plants (1).
Although the colors of the bloom may be largely associated with the specialized leaves called bracts, their flowers can be fancy and draw attention to the plant even more.
Some air plants have aromatic and elegant flowers like T. cyanea, T. caerulea, and T. stretocarpa while others can have insignificant blooms like T. usneoides (1). All these flowers may last for several weeks, even up to months and only occur once in the lifetime of an air plant. Often after flowering, new plants will form at the base or along the stem of the old plant (3).
Do Air Plants Need Soil?
Unlike normal plants, the shallow roots system of air plants is only used to anchor them to their host so soil is unnecessary. Indoors, they can be suspended in the air or installed on surfaces using glue, wire or string and be left to fend for themselves as is.
What is the Lifespan of Tillandsias?
In the wild, tillandsias can live for many years and with the right care, indoors too! However, after flowering, the plant will ultimately decline but not without leaving some offsets. 2-8 new plants called pups will form around the parent as it shrinks, giving way to the new growth cycle (1).
How to Take Care of Air Plants
Light and Water
Like most indoor plants from the tropics, air plants prefer bright, indirect light. They are best placed near windows or under fluorescent lighting for a light exposure of up to 12 hrs a day (3).
When it comes to water, they absorb moisture from the atmosphere but will still need to be manually wet 2-3 times a week. Once a month, submerging the plant into a water bath for 7 minutes will help store moisture and keep the leaves plump and healthy (3).
It is important to allow the base of the plant before placing it back to its host, otherwise the base may rot leading to the death of the whole plant. Tillandsias also like slightly acidic water so adding a dash of vinegar to the water will keep do wonders.
Temperature and Humidity
Air plants like good air circulation. They like to be kept cool during summer and warm enough during winter. The optimum temperature for these epiphytes ranges from 7 to 35 ̊C and they should never be kept wet or moist.
Pests and Diseases
One advantage of growing air plants indoors is their resiliency to pest attacks. Although they may have the occasional mealybugs and scale insects, they can be easily spotted and removed manually or by insecticidal spray.
The key is to always do spot checks on your plants, especially if they are docked on a driftwood or another plant that might be carrying the pest or disease. If there’s indication of pests, they should be isolated away from other indoor plants and treated immediately.
Rotting is the most frequent problem associated with air plants but this is often related to watering practices and extreme cold conditions. As long as the tillandsia is allowed to dry out between watering, decay and possible pathogenic attacks will be avoided. Any plant that has suffered cold damage can rarely be saved (2).
Propagation and Maintenance
Tillandsias can produce clump-forming pups all year round as soon as they’ve reached maturity (2). This may take some time, even years, considering air plants are slow-growing. But these pups can be separated to grow into individual plants too.
The pup needs to be one third of the size of the parent before breaking off to ensure that it will be able to survive on its own. The mother plant provides the nutrient reserve for the attached offset so once separated, the pup will require more care than an established air plant (1).
Popular ways of displaying air plants indoors is by hanging on decorative wires and glass containers. Different species exhibiting a variation of leaf formation can be installed on varnished driftwoods.
Tillandsias are also charming companions to plants like orchids, adenium, and other bromeliads.
A healthy tillandsia will normally not want any more than the regular misting and light exposure but fertilizer application once a month through foliar spray will help keep the leaves lush and may hasten its flowering (3).
Best Air Plants for Indoor Use
As evergreen perennial flowering plants, here are some varieties of tillandsias you can grow:
This is often what people new to air plants acquire. It forms clumps, striking, and easy to grow. In time with its tubular purple flower bloom, the leaves also blush to red.
Easily adapts to different types of climate, this is one of the most successful air plants. The root system is barely present but the curly leaves make up for it by clinging on to surfaces. The flowers are lavender-like and are very fragrant.
Also known as the Spanish moss, this air plant deviates from the usual upright and strong appearance of most tillandsias. It appears as long curly hair, silvery green in color. It has a strong dramatic effect left hanging in baskets or draped on tree branches.
This hardy tillandsia has thick soft leaves that are velvety to the touch. It bears pinkish red inflorescence and long purple flowers.
The graceful leaves of this air plant look like twigs covered in snow as they appear silvery being densely covered with trichomes.
The only tillandsia that grows on soil, this can be used as a groundcover in partly shaded gardens. In the middle of long green leaves emerge long-lasting bright pink and blue flowers looking like a quill, hence the common name ‘Pink Quill’.
One of the more drought tolerant species, it can grow up to 18in high even in shade. Its pale green flower blooms atop the red, green, and yellow mass of bracts.
This air plant has thin but strong leaves that reach up to a foot high. The silver color shines in the morning and in the night and is accentuated by the purple and violet flowers emerging from the pink bracts.
(1) Sengo, Z. “Air Plants: The Curious World of Tillandsias”. 2014. P. 224.
(2) Lesseig, R. & Lesseig M. “Air Plant Care and Design: Tips and Creative Ideas for the World’s Easiest Plants”. 2016. Simon and Schuster. P. 176.
(3) Hiang, S. “Exotic Tillandsia”. 2014. Partridge Publishing Singapore. P. 162.
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