The sky plant (Tillandsia ionantha), is probably the most popular air plant species in the world. These miniature epiphytes are famously adaptable and can be grown in a number of different ways in the home. Growing and caring for them can be very easy once you understand their needs. Read on to learn everything you need to know.
Tillandsia ionantha is a particularly ornamental species of air plant from Central America. They are generally a silvery green color but can be very showy at times. Many of its cultivars and varieties show orange to scarlet foliage colors before flowering, resulting in a rather striking-looking little plant.
Although the mother plant will flower just once, it can survive for several years with the right care. It will also produce pups that will also flower at maturity if grown in the right conditions.
Sky plants can be grown in a number of ways. Their epiphytic nature means they can be placed in positions that other houseplants are not suitable for. T. ionantha is readily available, and this hardy species makes a great first air plant for beginners.
|Scientific name||Tillandsia ionantha|
|Common names||Sky plant|
|Plant Type||Houseplant, epiphyte|
|Height and Width||Up to 6 inches high, 8 inches across|
|Origin||Costa Rica, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama. Naturalized in parts of Florida, USA (1)|
|Flower colors||Violet, red, pink|
|Foliage color||Grey, green, red|
|Sun Exposure||Bright indirect light|
|Soil Type & pH||Does not require soil|
How to Grow Tillandsia ionantha
Tillandsia ionantha is an epiphyte or lithophyte in nature, which means it anchors itself to other plants or bare rock, rather than soil. This means this plant should not be planted in soil but rather hung or mounted on a solid object. They are also very popular as terrarium plants (2).
Tillandsias can be grown both from seed and by their offsets, which are commonly referred to as pups.
Growing from seed is difficult and time-consuming. You may need to pollinate your flowers with a fine paintbrush to assist in fertilization. The seeds are very small and can be slow to germinate. The seedlings are also very small and great care must be taken to avoid rotting as they mature.
Growing the offsets is far easier and a great way to grow new sky plants. After flowering, the mother plant will produce plantlets known as pups. The pups should be left on the mother plant until they are at least a third of its size. The pups are simply removed using a tool with a sharp blade and then grown in the same way as the mother plant.
Sky plants are epiphytes, which means they do not need any soil at all to grow. Instead of limiting themselves to the ground, these plants have evolved to grow attached to the bark of trees and other objects, which is a great way to reach sunlight without needing to grow tall.
Sky plants require very little pruning. Unattractive dry leaf tips can be removed with a sharp sterilized cutting tool. Dead leaves can be carefully removed by hand or cut off, and old flowers should be cut off as low down as possible.
Repotting and Transplanting
One of the great things about Tillandsias is that they never need to be repotted. Transplanting can be as simple as picking up the plant and moving it wherever you like.
If, for example, you wish to move your plant temporarily to display it while entertaining friends or family, the plant will not suffer any harm as long as it is not moved into harsh direct sunlight and heat or freezing cold conditions.
These plants are typically hung on wire holders, placed in glass globes, or mounted on bark or driftwood. They can be attached using wire, elastic thread, or even glue. Transplanting sky plants that are secured with glue will not be as easy, however, so only glue plants once you’re sure you are happy with their placement.
How to Care for Sky Plants
Doubtless, many sky plants have been killed by well-meaning indoor gardeners who have attempted to grow them in soil. Once you understand the light and watering needs of this species, its care is relatively simple. Read on for more details.
Since these plants do not take up moisture from the soil with their roots, they have adopted another strategy to keep hydrated. They are able to rapidly absorb the moisture they need using structures known as trichomes.
This water should be provided by soaking the plants in filtered or bottled water. Opinions vary as to how long the plants should be soaked, but anything from 10 minutes to several hours is commonly suggested. A well-watered sky plant will change from a silvery color to green, and the leaf blades will relax and open up a little. Dehydrated foliage tends to curl upwards from the central axis of the leaf.
In a very hot, dry area with lots of light, the plant will need frequent watering. In a humid enough environment, only the occasional soak will be necessary. Soak the plants once or twice a week in the summer, and less frequently in winter. Take care to pour any residual water of the plant before putting it back in its display position.
T. ionantha prefers bright but indirect light. It can withstand some direct sunlight too, particularly when the sun is low in the sky. Growing this plant near an east or west-facing window is therefore ideal.
Just remember, more light will mean more watering is necessary, and too much light may burn the plant. If your plant is stubbornly refusing to bloom, that could be a good sign that it is not receiving enough light.
Temperature and Humidity
These tropical plants are not frost-tolerant. Regular household temperatures between about 60°F and 80°F are ideal.
Moderate humidity is what these plants really prefer, but they can survive perfectly well in dry climates if misted regularly. Nevertheless, growing this plant in a naturally humid area of the home like the bathroom is certainly beneficial.
If you live in a humid, tropical area, this plant may not need to be misted at all and will thrive with just the occasional soaking. Mist the plant a few times a week, ideally with bottled or filtered water as these plants can be sensitive to chemicals like chlorine that are found in tap water.
Sky plants use their trichomes to absorb both water and nutrients. Use a specialized Tillandsia fertilizer and follow the instructions of your specific product (3). Alternatively, you may choose to use just a little orchid or bromeliad fertilizer applied as a foliar spray.
Pest and diseases
Sky plants are very resistant to pests and diseases. The most common health complaints tend to be the result of inappropriate watering and access to light.
Rot is a common killer of plants grown with no airflow or in soil. This can also occur in plants that are left to stand in water. Water should not be allowed to collect and stand between the leaves after soaking.
The Ionantha air plant prefers bright indirect light. Avoid placing your plant in direct sunlight as the leaves may burn.
Common Varieties and Cultivars
Tillandsia ionantha plants are available in an amazing number of varieties and cultivars. These different forms vary in size, color, and shape. The following are just a few of the better-known examples that you can grow:
Sky plants are interesting and quirky miniatures that thrive in indoor environments. They may seem puzzling at first, but once you understand the basics of their care, you should have no problem growing this fascinating species along with other indoor plants.
- Kew Botanic Gardens. Tillandsia Ionantha Planch.
- Nicole Flowers-Kimmerle. Air Plants Grow Well In Terrariums
- North Carolina State Extension. Tillandsia Ionantha
*image by Stramyk/depositphotos