Air Plants (Tillandsia)

Those strange and fascinating plants that are often referred to as "Air Plants" are Tillandsia, a genus of over 700 species in the Bromeliad family (Bromeliacae). They are the most widely dispersed of all Bromeliads, ranging from southern Argentina, through Central America and the West Indians and reaching as far north as Virginia. Most species of Tillandsia are epiphytes, requiring no soil to grow in and using their wire-like roots only as holdfasts to attach to trees, bushes, cacti, etc. Some like Tillandsia usneoides or "Spanish Moss’ have no roots at all and grow merely draped over the branches of their host. Tillandsia can be loosely split into two categories, mesic and xeric. The majority of Tillandsia species are mesic, growing in areas that receive plenty of rain and have high humidity levels. Mesic Tillandsia often have a rosette shape of thin leaves that hold water and are sometimes referred to as tank type bromeliads because of their ability to store water among the leaf axils.

Xeric Tillandsias have developed the ability to withstand periods of drought and intense sunlight. They have perfected a cell structure call trichomes that often give them a silvery or fuzzy appearance. Trichomes help Tillandsia rapidly absorb water and nutrients when available and then preserve water during dry periods. They also shield the plants from intense sunlight. Xeric Tillandsias have another adaptation that allows them to live in extreme environments. Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) allows a plant to keep its stomata closed during the day to reduce water loss, but open at night to collect CO2. The CO2 is then stored for use in photosynthesis during the day. Plants using the more typical C3 photosynthesis lose 97% of their water through transpiration. This massive loss of water is avoided by xeric Tillandsia by using CAM. The tradeoff is that his process is less efficient than the more typical C3 photosynthesis and results in a much slower rate of growth for the plants that utilize it.

Cultivation of Tillandsia (Air Plants)


Tillandsia prefers bright light. If you grow them in the house they should be located within three feet of a window, preferably south facing, though East or West should work. Remember that it would be nearly impossible to give them too much light in a house. If you grow them outside they prefer bright but filtered light from April through October and will do best in full sun November through March.


They’re called "air plants" or "atmospherics"; they don’t have any roots, so you might be wondering if they are able to survive on the moisture in the air? No, they need liquid water which they absorb through their leaves. Misting the plant is inadequate, they need to be thoroughly wetted and then allowed to completely dry out before being watered again. If they are growing in the house we recommend watering them 1-2 times a week during the winter months and 2-3 times a week the rest of the year. To water, you can simply lay them in the sink and run the tap water over them or you can submerge them into a container of water and leave them for a few minutes to a couple of hours. The temperature and humidity play a key role in determining how often to water. The warmer and dryer the air the more often you should water and the cooler and moister the air the less often you should water. The type of Tillandsia also plays a role. Tillandsia with softer, thinner and greener leaves need to be watered more often than the ones that have harder, thicker and grayer leaves. Tillandsia will perish in standing water and need adequate air circulation so that they dry out within about 4 hours of being watered. If you examine the leaves of your Tillandsia closely you will notice that the concave curve of each leaf will exaggerate as the plant becomes dehydrated. Tillandsias are generally not critical as to water quality. They prefer slightly acidic water (PH about 6.0) but generally can tolerate most tap water except softened water that contains too much sodium and very alkaline water.


Tillandsias are oligotrophs meaning they can live with very low levels of nutrients. Although they can survive on the nutrients they assimilate from the dust that lands upon them, they will grow faster, get larger and flower more frequently when they are given a consistent application of fertilizer. We use and recommend a water soluble 20-10-20 formula but formulations of 30-10-10, 20-20-20, 20-10-30 will all work. Avoid urea and make sure the nitrogen component is ammoniacal or nitrite or a combination of these. Urea based nitrogen is not in a form that is available to the plant until it is broken down by bacteria that live in the soil. Because your Tillandsia has no contact with soil, urea based nitrogen is useless. We recommend using ½ tablespoon per gallon of water and soaking your plant in the solution for a few minutes twice a month. You can store the solution and reuse it almost indefinitely!


Tillandsias grow primarily in tropical or subtropical regions. They generally prefer temperatures between 50 and 90 degrees F. That being said, most species can tolerate brief periods of temperatures near freezing and temperatures well above 100F.


Most Tillandsia species grow in humid climates. Plants can be grown in low humidity conditions, but it is important to remember that the lower the humidity and the higher the temperatures the faster the plant will lose water. In conditions of low humidity and high temperatures Tillandsia are susceptible to leaf burn, but if they are provided a little shading and frequent watering and fertilizer they will thrive. Remember that in conditions of extreme heat and low humidity it is almost impossible to over water them.



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