Air plants (Tillandsia spp.) are much more fun than run-of-themill houseplants. After all, when was the last time you grinned ear to ear or giggled at the sight of an African violet or a peace lily? What makes Tillandsias so visually appealing is that they look nothing like conventional indoor plants. Spiky, fuzzy, fluffy or frilly, they’re all as cute as puppies. In fact, some are so reminiscent of hedgehogs that one expects them to wiggle or squeak.
Unlike conventional flora, air plants lack a soil-anchoring root system and use their “feet” mostly for clinging. Like the other 27,000 species of epiphytes, they are wont to perch high atop trees and other tall plants. Air plants take in nutrients and water from absorptive scales found on their leaves.
Their rootless existence is what makes them so amenable to human folly. Because air plants don’t need to be grounded in soil, they don’t care if we dangle them from wires, hang them on planks of wood, string them on pieces of cork or even glue them onto other plants. (For an unusual tropical effect, toss several handfuls of Spanish moss over a curtain rod in a sunlit bath.)
While Tillandsias’ unconventional characteristics sometimes confound gardeners, they need little maintenance. It is a big mistake to plant any kind of epiphyte in soil, even though this sounds like a horticulturally sensible thing to do. After all, some epiphytic houseplants, such as orchids or scarlet star (Guzmania lingulata), appear to grow in soil-filled containers. But they don’t. Potting mediums for all epiphytes are unlike those formulated for ordinary leafstem-root plants. Commonly sold as orchid mixes, these products usually contain sphagnum peat, sphagnum moss and pieces of tree bark. They are, therefore, much coarser than standard potting soils. Orchid mixes are used mostly as a way to keep epiphytes propped up for display.
However, there is no mandate to use orchid mixes, and it’s certainly more entertaining to devise alternative ways to support an air plant. Experiment with interesting stones, shells, barnacles, lichen-laden tree branches or moss. Because Tillandsias come in many shapes, it’s a delight to coax several kinds into sophisticated or whimsical arrangements. Their popularity has given rise to specialized air plant accessories, including one called Thigmotrope Satellite, a metal tripod device that inserts into a wall. Air plants are also amenable to hot glue, which comes in handy when trying to encourage them to cling to another plant or a decorative object.
While most Tillandsias display gentle hues of green and gray, some, such as T. ionantha and T. tricolor, are brightly colored. If more color is desired, air plants are nonchalant about light applications of florist paint. Hyams Garden Center (hyams gardencenter.com) horticultur- 140 CSD alist Sarah Petrowski says that acrylic artist’s paint also works. Some air plants also produce colorful flowers. For example, pink quill (T. cyanea) sends up shield-shaped fuchsia blossoms that deliver unexpected pops of color to an arrangement.
Petrowski offers tips to keep air plants growing: Tillandsias prefer bright light but not direct sun. Thoroughly mist their leaves with water twice a week throughout summer. (Thick-textured or hair-like specimens, like Spanish moss, sometimes require a thorough soaking in a bucket or sink full of water.) Then, reduce misting to once every week or two in winter. “Remember,” says Petrowski, “all air plants love humidity.” The staff at Hyams also recommends misting with a halfstrength solution of high-potash liquid fertilizer. Premixed solutions tailored to suit Tillandsias’ needs are available from various sources.
Air plants additionally benefit from a summer vacation outdoors. Moving them to a patio or courtyard will not result in invasion. In other words, enjoy showing off your Tillandsias outdoors during the summer months, and continue to collect more of these remarkable plants.
PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.