Growing on Air

| May 31, 2013 | 0 Comments


The Tillandsia is a genus in the Bromeliad family, of the genus epiphytic, and many of the plants are true epiphytes meaning they can grow with no soil.

The Tillandsia is a genus in the Bromeliad family, of the genus epiphytic, and many of the plants are true epiphytes meaning they can grow with no soil.

Imagine a plant that lives on air, requires very little attention, uses almost no space (It can even be grown vertically), and it can take both extreme heat and cold as low as 32 degrees. Paul Isley, co-owner of Rainforest Flora, spoke to the San Diego Horticultural Society about Tillandsias, also known as air plants. Isley has nearly forty years’ experience with these plants. Although originally he travelled all over the world collecting them, over the past 25 years he has not imported any; they have all been propagated at the nursery. “99 percent of the plants at our nurseries were and are produced there,” he said. If you start them from seed, the plants need from six to twenty years to mature. Isley and his partner did something right.

The Tillandsia is a genus in the Bromeliad family, of the genus epiphytic, and many of the plants are true epiphytes meaning they can grow with no soil. Because the plants absorb water and nutrients through their leaves, they do not need to compete for space in the soil as most other plants do. Many species are natives to Latin American deserts; our Southern California climate is too dry for too long making their existence here naturally too difficult. Others come from tropical rain forests. Isley says that “with a garden hose, it’s amazing how well they can grow as long as they are not out if/when it freezes.”

These plants are easy to grow. They will take low light as well as bright sunlight (which they prefer if becoming more colorful means they like it). Ideally a white or fuzzy leafed plant fairs better without direct exposure to the sun whereas the darker, smoother leafed plants like it. They all need light, food, water, and air. If the leaf edges curl up toward each other more than normal, it is a sign that the plant is drying up. However, it will revive or rehydrate if placed under water for 12 to 14 hours. The water should be either bottled drinking or rain water; distilled water is not advisable unless “it has just a tad of fertilizer in it.” Even if the leaves remain curled up and mechanical cell damage has occurred, the plant itself will survive and grow new leaves.

Isley recommends using this submersion method for watering indoor Tillandsias. After removing the plant, take care not to let the centers remain wet. To avoid rot the centers of all Tillandsias must never be left with standing water. Shake the excess moisture off the plant. Tillandsias breathe (respire) through their leaves at night. If the leaves are wet, the plant cannot respire.

Keeping your plants hydrated by misting is tricky because the plant may not receive enough water but might be left with a saturated center. Again, the Tillandsias with whiter or fuzzier leaves are more prone to rot if they have excessive moisture. Isley explained, “The leaves cannot respire gases (breathe) when the epidermis (skin) is wet.” As long as the leaf surfaces are dry most of the time, they will be fine. However, when it is hot and dry, remember that these plants need more frequent watering. Once their leaves are wet, stop watering; they cannot use more. The darker leafed plants are less delicate and can handle more heat and more water.

They all like a bit of food – a half teaspoon of bromeliad fertilizer such as Epiphyte’s Delight , per gallon of water is ideal. For plants that are to be submerged, keep the water and food mixture in a sealed container. You can keep using it to feed the plants. Do shake or stir the water before using it to distribute the nutrients. Add water as necessary to completely cover the plants.

Air plants can be displayed in a variety of ways. Many people fasten their Tillandsias to whatever they wish to mount them on with Tilly Tacker, a styrene based adhesive that is completely water-proof and is used at room temperature. A hot glue gun will work as long as you don’t burn the plant. Any waterproof surface will suffice from Styrofoam to walls. Southern California has an ideal climate for Tillandsias. Even though they like heat, they also prefer cool nights. Having a portable plant may facilitate this. One method of keeping the plant portable is to glue Velcro to it. Then gluing another piece of Velcro on the wall will permit easy removal for watering or shaking off excess moisture. The plants can even be hung on a hook tied to a string. It is easy to find room for them.

“Tillandsias have fabulous blooms,” Isley told us adding that “some species are wonderfully fragrant,” such as Tillandsia duratii, T. crocata, T. purpurea, and T. straminea. They usually bloom in winter . Humming birds or moths and butterflies, attracted by their fragrance, can pollinate them. Seeds ripen in the seed pods which dehisce (open up) dispersing the seeds before the onset of the rainy season. Tillandsia seeds all have a fuzzy, cottony attachment on them (similar to a dandelion’s) that allows them to travel on air currents to land and germinate in new locations.

When grown in optimal conditions of bright light and sufficient water and air movement, most Tillandsias bloom annually, reproducing readily. These offsets grow up over the following year, repeating the process each year until you have a sizable clump of plants which can be spectacular. According to Isley, this is another great advantage to growing these plants, “They stay with you through thick and thin. Your kids grow up, people sometimes get divorced; there are all of life’s challenges, but your Tillandsias will stay with you!”

On June 26 Ben Zlotnick who majored in ornamental horticulture will share information with us about wild birds and how to attract them. Meetings are from 6 to 8 p.m. at Mission Hills Nursery, 1525 Fort Stockton Drive. Members are free; guests pay $10.00.

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About the Author ()

Barbara Strona is a native Californian who grew up in the Mid-West and Los Angeles. She and her architect husband, Carl, came to San Diego in 1968 and have lived in Mission Hills since early 1971. Barbara received a Bachelor of Arts from Scripps College with a major in English, and a minor in Art. She attended UCLA graduate school and received a General Secondary Credential. She taught English in Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, and at Point Loma High School. She has been a Realtor specializing in residential sales since 1984. Her passions include her job, reading, writing, foreign languages and foreign countries, animals (feathered or furry), theatre, and her family: husband, two adult children and two grandsons.