In The Garden: Tillandsia

 Air plant with ‘pups’

This month we are going ‘In the House’ for our usual garden blog.  Its February, cold, and while we are thinking about starting seeds and perusing seed catalogues and garden magazines, lets look for a moment at a warmer topic. 

Tillandsia or air plants have become a popular plant in the past few years as they are unique, relatively inexpensive, easy to grow and take up little space.   They are native to the rain forests, deserts, and mountainous areas of the West Indies, Central and South America and the southern states of the USA. Air Plants grow in abundance in the Everglades and other areas of Florida.

 Photo:  Tillandsia- A park in St. Petersburg, Florida

Tillandsias are epiphytic plants, meaning they grow on other plants, trees, and rocks.  They are not parasites and get their nourishment from rain and the humid air around them.  They are a perfect plant for bright light kitchens and bathrooms where the humidity is higher in our dry homes.  Air plants vary in mature size; from under 1 inch to 3 ft. or more!

There are approximately 600 varieties of air plants.  Most like a bright light location, but a few can tolerate full sun in a location with high humidity. They photosynthesize like any other plant; bloom, set seed and produce pups/offsets.  In some species a mother plant will produce many generations of pups before eventually dying.  This usually takes months.  In others, the plants bloom, set seed and have one generation of pups before dying.  Research the air plant you purchase as their life cycles and number of pups produced can vary. 


Perhaps the most important care topic to cover when talking about air plants is watering.  I must urge you to provide some extra humidity in your home or in the area where you place your air plant. Daily mist in the morning or early afternoon and gently shake off any excess water.  This gives the plants time to dry off before night.  The water used for misting should never be distilled water or softened water which has a high salt content.  Instead use bottled water and tap water that has stood out overnight to get rid of the chlorine.  You can also use aquarium water, but if you do, there is no need to fertilize. Water should never be allowed to stand in the middle of the plant where it can eventually cause rot.  Tillandsia naturally grow on an angle so any rain will run away from the center of the plant.   Once a week immerse your air plants in warm water for about 30 minutes and dry thoroughly on a paper towel.


Air plants get their nutrients from water and air. Fertilizer for air plants must be different than regular fertilizer because air plants cannot rely on soil to break down nitrogen. Low nitrogen fertilizers are the best to use as they will promote blooming and offset production.  It is also advisable to use a non-urea based low nitrogen fertilizer as this will provide a form of nitrogen that is useable for Tillandsia. 

You can use a low nitrogen Bromeliad fertilizer once to twice a month.  If you do not have a Bromeliad fertilizer, use Miracle Grow at ¼ the recommended strength. 

Overfertilization will kill Tillandsia.   

If your Tillandsia bracts (pseudo-leaves) start to blush with color and bloom this is a good time to fertilize as this will help with bloom and pup production.  



If your air plant loves its location, it will flower and produce pups or offsets.  Their small flowers are colorful, often with purple flowers.

If the flowers are left to mature on the plant and have been pollinated, they will produce seed.  In their natural habitat, the flower is usually pollinated by birds, wind, insects, bees, and ants.  They are also able to self pollinate with the pollen going from the stamen to the stigma.  Once a seed pod has formed, it will split and release the fluffy, hairy seed (called the Coma).  The Coma travel through the air like a parachute and attach themselves to trees, shrubs, plants, and rocks.  Rain helps the coma to germinate.   Starting air plants from seed needs a lot of patience!   They do not have to pollinate to produce pups.

New air plants or pups appear to be fuzzy. The fuzz is actually a coating of special cells called trichomes which help air plants absorb water and nutrients They work to lower plant temperature, decrease water loss, and reflect radiation.  They also provide a defense system against insect pests.

A mature air plant will send out babies or pups from their base.  When they reach 1/3 to ½ the size of their parent you can separate them from the mother plant. Remove them at the base with a sharp sterilized knife or gently twist them away from the mother.   You can also leave them on the mother plant where they will eventually form a large clump.  Depending on the variety, a mother may go on to produce more pups and eventually die. 



To display your collection, you can mount Tillandsia on just about anything.  Do not use pressure treated wood as the copper in this wood will kill the air plant.  Also do not use superglue or surround your air plant with moss.  Moss will hold in too much moisture, eventually causing rot.

To mount an air plant on driftwood, shells, or rocks, use a waterproof glue or hot glue.  Let the hot glue cool for a few seconds before attaching the air plant.  Wire, fishing line and twist-ties can also be used. 



If you choose to display your air plant in a glass container or globe do not put it in direct sun.  The glass will magnify the heat.

  Spanish Moss- St. Petersburg Florida


Tillandsia usneoides is also known as Spanish Moss.  It is an epiphytic plant in the Bromeliad family that is often seen dripping from trees in the deep south of the U.S. and Central and South America.  Spanish Moss is not a true moss; it flowers and sets seed!  The flowers are very tiny, green in color and exude a beautiful fragrance at night.   This plant will bloom for four months straight in spring and summer.  Seed pods then form and break open to release the seed to the wind and a new location to germinate.  Birds also use Spanish Moss to create their nests, giving the plant a new location to start growing. 




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