Air Plants – Bringing Home Tillandsia

Tillandsia aka ‘Air plants’ — what a weird and wonderful expression of flora! I regularly see them growing in oak trees, clinging to electric wires, and stumble across them on the ground with no effort. I’m talking about the epiphytic moss balls that form on branches and resemble birds nests of various sizes. It’s hard to resist scooping up a tangled bundle of what I now know is Tillandsia recurvata, and not moss at all. The long curly Spanish Moss ‘Tillandsia usneoides’ (also not moss) is a bit less common around here, and is also an air plant. I remember trying to jump up and pull some out of a tree on our farm as a kid, but it was always just out of reach.

Lizards love them! Anole in my T. xerographica

Once I realized I wasn’t totally unfamiliar to this plant family, I knew I needed to get my hands on one of the more sought after ‘decorative’ varieties and see if I could keep it alive.  So last year I proceeded cautiously and bought one lone Tillandsia xerographica. I figured as a tropical-dwelling plant it would do well in the hot humidity of Houston as long as I didn’t cook it in the sun or let it go too long without watering. If the prevalence of the tree moss balls were any indicator of my success, I should be able to manage to keep my new addition happy or at least alive, and so far, so good! I’ve since acquired three more but I gave one to a friend for her office.

Perhaps you are timid about Tillandsia and don’t quite understand how they survive without roots or dirt, you know, those typical ‘plant requirements’ to be considered ‘alive.’ I know I’ve looked at mine and had to turn it this way and that to guess if it was still with us on this earthly plain.       

Rain bath

Working with succulents has really taught me to respect the fact that some plants really don’t need to be hydrated as often as we would like to pour on the love, but how the heck do you know when a Tillandsia needs a drink? And where do you put the water? They rarely have roots and aren’t potted in dirt like normal plants, so you can’t check the soil for moisture. My T. xerographica has flat curling leaves like wide Spinach fettuccine pasta. I noticed after it was soaked and dried, the leaves unfurled a bit and flattened out, not unlike after washing my own curly hair. And a couple of weeks later, also like my hair after it dries, the leaves would curl up and seem shorter again.     

To hydrate it, I soak it upside down in my rain bin for anywhere from 20 minutes to (accidentally) overnight, (2-3 a month if I remember to do it that often.) If I run out of clean rain water, I’ll fill the bin with the hose and let the water dechlorinate. I’m careful to let it dry upside down in a shady spot to make sure it doesn’t rot, and at times I’ve put a fan on it to be extra sure it doesn’t retain any water at the base of the leaves.

T. tectorum, T. caput medusae, T. ionantha druid, T. magnusiana- macrame hanging clay saucer, mini table, put a bird on it

Due to the humidity here in Houston, and the fact I keep most of my plants outdoors, I don’t have to soak my Tillandsia as often as others in a drier climate or if they were kept indoors. The guru of indoor plant care, Darryl Cheng of House Plant Journal, has an article on best practices for indoor Tillandsia on his site. He’s based out of *Canada, and while Houston doesn’t suffer from extreme winters, I’m going to need to bring my air plants inside whenever the temperatures drop below 50F for more than a day to be on the safe side.  We also get seriously hot summers and Tillandsia prefer highs in the low 90s, so knowing how to care for them indoors is ideal. Darryl’s the best at explaining how to judge if your plants are getting the right amount of light, indoors or outside, so be sure to check out his writings so you know where your plants will be happiest in and around your home.

Tillandsia ‘Houston’ in birch bark hanger

Another beautiful and informative guide to Tillandsia comes from ‘Air Plants – The Curious World of Tillandsias’ by Zenaida Sengo. Did you know there are also desert dwelling air plants? And did you know some of their flowers are fragrant? I certainly didn’t! The book explains all kinds of delicious data on how different Tillandsia adapt to the regions they’re found in which directly translates to how to care for them based on your climate. I really enjoy browsing the pages of IDs and creative display options, as I still consider myself an air plant newb.

Plant mail! My order from Mountain Crest Gardens

If you’re like me, you’ve stumbled across Mountain Crest Gardens* while searching for care tips or IDs for a mystery succulent. Maybe you discovered their trove of available Tillandsia and asked yourself why you didn’t have more air plants in your life. After all, with the holidays coming, one could always gift them to friends after keeping them around for a while. I’m sure you can relate to this logic, right? I knew I wanted a frosty, feathery Tillandsia tectorum and bingo! They had them available. I also saw a variety called ‘Houston’ and since that’s where I’m from, I’d be needing that too…several clicks later, I had expanded my air plant collection by four  new additions, (and scored a small bundle of new succulents.) MCG almost always has some kind of sale or discount going on which makes it much more tempting to keep adding plants to one’s cart. You can get air plant food and Zenaida’s lovely book from their online shop as well.

Tillandsia tectorum ‘Ecuador’

Do you want one more good reason to scoop some air plants? Believe it or not, Houston got snow before Wisconsin and Nebraska this year and I wouldn’t be surprised to get another hard freeze like last winter. If it’s not the best time to add to your outdoor collection, but you really need a plant fix, Tillandsia are perfectly happy indoors if provided the right light. So there you go.    

*After publishing this article, MCG started a referral program. Purchase through the links above and it will help me at no cost to you!
MCG ships to US – for Canada, check out Dave’s Air Plant Corner

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