February can be a good month to do some indoor gardening to help stave off winter doldrums and cabin fever. One type of indoor plant that I have found to be especially easy and rewarding to care for is tillandsia, more commonly known as “air plants”. Air plants have become really popular in the last few years, in fact, they have become so popular that I saw fake air plant terrariums at Target the other day! Fake air plants really aren’t necessary though, because air plants are really easy to care for.
Water: Air plants get all of the water and nutrients they need through their leaves and only use their roots to attach themselves to rocks, trees, shrubs, and the ground, so you don’t need to keep air plants in soil or monitor their soil conditions. You do need to keep air plants watered though. There are a lot of different watering theories in regards to air plants. The way I water my air plants is to soak them all in bowls of normal tap water for about 20 minutes once or twice a week (rain water is supposedly best for air plants and if I remember, I collect rain water to water them with). Then I lay the plants out on a towel to dry overnight before returning the plants to their homes. Some people choose to mist their air plants or run them under a faucet. Regardless of which method you use for watering your air plants, it is imperative that you don’t allow water to pool on the plant. If it does, dry it with a towel or by letting the plant sit upside down or on it’s side for awhile. Air plants must be allowed to dry out between waterings, preferably within hours of being watered.
Fertilizer: I have read some gardeners who insist that air plants don’t need fertilizer and at first I did not use a fertilizer. My air plants never bloomed or reproduced though, until I started experimenting with fertilizers. Then, they started blooming and reproducing like crazy. So based on my experience, I highly recommend a fertilizer that is specifically made for air plants.
Light: Air plants grow in various different types of conditions throughout Central and South America, but wherever they grow, it is never in direct light. The general advice that I have read is to keep them in bright, but filtered, light. As I live in Seattle and my house faces the wrong direction for good light conditions, I use full spectrum light bulbs to supplement all of my indoor plants’ light during the shorter days of the year.
Air Circulation: Air plants do need good air circulation, so they are not good choices to keep in lidded terrariums.
Temperature: Air plants should be kept in moderate temperatures, 50 – 90℉. If you live in Zone 9 or warmer, you may keep your plants outside, but for the rest of us, air plants really should be kept as indoor plants.
Containers: Since air plants don’t need soil, they can be kept in all sorts of creative containers and arrangements. I am still experimenting with this, but one thing that I have learned is that though new air plants look adorable in a lot of little containers, air plants grow fairly quickly. So though they make look great in a sea urchin shell when you first get them, they will quickly outgrow the shell. Some of my air plants are getting to be about 1′ long from root to leaf tip!
Blooming and Reproduction: Air plants have some really remarkable flowers when they bloom. I have not had a lot of my plants bloom and my understanding is that many air plants will die after blooming. Reproduction is tied to when the air plant blooms. Plants will create babies (AKA “pups”) sometime right before, during, or immediately after blooming. Air plants reproduce by making little baby plants that grow off the bottom of the mother plant. The new pups can be removed when about 1/3 – 1/2 the size of their mother. Some people like to leave the pups on the mother plant to grow clumps or clusters of plants (you can just gently remove the mother’s dead leaves and the new plants will fill in the space).
All in all, air plants are very easy to grow. After you have been doing it for awhile, it can be fun to try to grow some of the rarer plants, as you will be able to appreciate the variations between plants more. Do you have any air plants? If so, do you have links to any photos of your air plants? I’d love to see them if you do.