It was after one of those lazy Sunday brunch with my family that I came across this lifestyle shop selling air plants. Within first sight, I was fascinated by their bizarre and intriguing form. And the fact that they can live and grow out of the soil just amazes me. Happily, I brought some back home. I tried designing them with different items like sea shells, drift wood, terrariums and pots. And then a few more I brought. There was so much fun to explore when it comes to designing air plants. However, I suppose I have put more time in “playing” with its design than really learning how to care for them. My first few batches of air plants lasted only about half to a year before dying away without any blooming. I was not deterred. I started reading more about them and got tips from the experts on how to really care for them well. Now, at least I have some success with blooms and new pups growing. However, be prepared to experience some setbacks and be ready to bounce back from there. Some learning curve is expected. As the saying goes; failure is the mother of all success. However, I must say I am not an expert yet though but chances are I might have encountered the same problems as you and maybe can share some pointers here. First, let me start with some general information about Tillandsias:-
Tillandsias where most people call them as air plants form one of the largest parts of the Bromeliad family. But air plants (epiphytes) actually refer to any plants that grow epiphytically; need no soil and possibility on other plants or surfaces but they get their moisture and nutrients from the air. In fact, just like Tillandsias; orchids, ferns and mosses are also considered Epiphytes but people seldom called them air plants.
Tillandsias are further broken down into species name e.g. “Tillandsia Inonatha” or "Tillandsia Velutina" etc. There are more than 600 species of Tillandsias. And some of their native habitats are jungles and deserts in the Mexico, South, Central Americas and certain part of United States. However, you can find farms cultivating them and there are many interesting cultivated hybrids developed that exhibit characteristics of their parent species as well.
Root System, Trichomes & Growth cycles
The root of Tillandsia serve more as a hold for them to their host plant or surface to facilitate best light exposure for growth. It does not have the ability to absorb water hence doing away with it is still fine.
Tillandsia depends on their leaves for water and have these tiny little “scales”or “hairs” known as Trichomes which allow them to do so. And you can find them above and below the leaves. And depending on their species; the density and size of the trichomes varies. And Tillandsia can be further classified into Xeric Tillandsia and Mesic Tillandsia depending on their climate and trichomes modification. Xeric species are those characterized to adapt to live in hotter and dryer climate and they have larger, denser and more feathery trichomes. But then again they will need more sunlight exposure to thrive. And Mesic Tillandsia has lesser and smaller trichomes and need more frequent watering. They tend to grow faster than Xeric species and also have smoother and greener leaves.
Tillandsia grows to maturity and bloom with a life cycle of just one plant. And it produces flowers which are very attractive. Depending on the species, they can produce 2 – 8 young ones knowns as “Pups” before, during or after their bloom. And be patient; because Tillandsia has a slower growing nature for it to reach maturity and blooms. Allowing maximum allowable sunlight with sufficient watering and fertilizer does help. Don’t throw away the parent plant too fast as it will be take some time before it eventually die off. And allow the young ones to grow and usually they will group to form a nice natural cluster known as “Clumps”.
And just like any other plants; Tillandsia need air, water and light to grow. Tillandsia known as air plant sometimes makes people think that they only live on air and don’t need water and light. But this is hardly the truth.
Watering is one of the most important cares for Tillandsias. Just like any other plants; Tillandsias does need water, although they can survive with little or much lesser water for a longer than most plants. And upon watering, they should be given enough air circulation to dry in no more than 4 hour. The best time to water has to be in the morning. Air plants take in carbon dioxide from the air at night instead of the day time. At night if the plant is wet, it does not breathe well, unless it can be dried quickly at night. Day also give them the sun to dry faster. Having it wet for too long will result in rot where you will start seeing the accumulation of shiny brown spots on the air plant.
Watering frequency can range from 2 times per week to more often in a hot and dry environment. The frequency really depends on how much sun exposure the air plants are getting and how dry is the environment. Tillandsias growing outdoor need more watering than Tillandsias growing indoor, as for outdoor; the sun exposure will be more and the wind also dry them out more quickly. And for some air conditioning indoor environment, the air might tend to be dryer and hence more frequent watering is necessary. Dehydration can be observed by the browning of leaves tips, wrinkling or curling of leaves edge inwards creating a tubular shape.
The best watering method is to complete submerge the plant into a bucket to wet it completely. But don’t submerge a blooming flower in as it will wet and possibly dissolve the petals and also make drying more difficult. 20 - 30 mins per soaking will be sufficient. And when a plant has been neglected, a longer soaking an hours or more will be good. Follow by 20 - 30 mins couple of days later. Continue with a good watering schedule upon then. When handling the air plants, try holding it from the plant base rather that the leaves as it will tends to break the smaller and weaker leaves more easily. Ensure excess water from those fleshy and bulbous types like Tillandsia Selarina are completely shaken off. Avoid the trapping of water in centre of species like Xerographica as it will be potentially harmful. One way is to turn the plant upside down and let go those water.
If instead of soaking, you are going to mist the plant which is a fun and therapeutic thing to do. Try to ensure misting the air plant thoroughly so as to drench wet the whole plant and reaching all its surfaces.
Give them as much bright indirect sunlight as possible. An hour or two of gentle direct sunlight in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun light is less strong is very beneficial. Avoid all day direct sun as it will be harmful for the plant and might just “burn” it even if the plant is in an indoor environment. Indoor nearer to the window (as like 1 - 2 m away), patio or shaded area exposed to the outside sun is good. However, indoor which are much further away from the window and those areas that are not getting enough light channeling in could be a challenge for your air plant. And very often, we tend to place Tillandsia in area we feel it look good even where the lighting condition is not very ideal. Tillandsia which is lacking in light might do fine for a while says couple of months but will eventually fall apart during a through watering session. Remember light is important for photosynthesis to take place and there has to be sufficient for the plant to perform this function.
A good spectrum fluorescent lighting can compensate for indoor area with lesser natural lighting. Xeric Tillandsia species such as Xerographica and those with thicker leaves and bigger trichomes can tolerate more light exposure and will prefer more sunlight exposure in comparison to Mesic Tillandsia with their leaves being thinner.
Try to observe the air circulation in the area where the plant is to be placed. Place them in area which offers good clean air circulation. This will keep your plant healthy. And an area with good air circulation also help to dry them up faster after watering. And the air humidity does play a part as well. When the humidity of the air is higher, the plant's ability to withstand higher sun exposure will be better. However, when the air becomes too hot, move the air plants to a better ventilated or cooler area else increase the watering frequency so as to prevent overheating.
Use those with at least one open side. And never plant your Tillandsia into the soil. Take out the Tillandsia for watering and ensure is completely dry before putting it back.
This can provide the nutrient that air plants needed just like in their natural habitat. In their natural habitat, they can obtain nutrients more easily from the other living or dead organism within their environment. In house air plants tend to be disadvantage on that. Hence, regular applications of fertilizer on the air plants can mitigate this disadvantage and let them grow healthy for a long time. Any orchid or bromeliad food or water soluble fertilizer once a month will do. Don’t exceed the manufacturer requirements or instructions. Done properly, it can enhance growth and will result in better flowers and more pups.