By Paul Hicks
Pullquote: Gardening success on a smaller scale
When we recently moved from a home on an acre of land with lots of gardening space to a condominium with a few small planting beds, our cultivation of plants had to be adjusted along with a number of other habits.
The first step was to find successful indoor plants, even though they require more care than just sticking them in the ground and turning on the sprinkler system.
Our horizon expanded when we discovered tillandsias, commonly called air plants, which are native to tropical and sub-tropical parts of the New World. Probably the best-known variety is Spanish moss, which grows in our southern states.
Most tillandsias are epiphytes and need no soil, because water and nutrients are absorbed through their leaves. The roots are mainly used as anchors to a host tree or other plant. Since they derive no nourishment from the host, they are not parasitic.
Tillandsias are generally adaptive and hardy enough to flourish indoors with adequate lighting and care. Air plants grown indoors generally need to be watered about two to three times a week, often by spraying the plant, and occasionally by feeding with watered-down orchid fertilizer. Bright filtered light is recommended, but plants will tolerate brighter light in higher humidity or with more frequent watering.
All tillandsias are supposed to bloom, and some will on a regular basis. It is apparently quite common for some species to take on a different leaf color when they are about to flower. Those plants flower once before dying, but what are called “offsets” or “pups,” which develop around the flowering plant, will continue to thrive.
Zenaida Sengo, author of “Air Plants: The Curious World of Tillandsias,” writes that, “There is a widespread but somewhat misleading belief that air plants die after they bloom, which is not entirely true…the plant only begins to fade after it has produced a few to several offspring. …which are able to survive on their own…” One grower advises: “Do not discard to the mother plant yet, as long as she is still alive she will continue to produce more pups for you…
To remove the pups, they should be at least one-third to one-half the size of the mother plant. Hold both mother and pup at their bases and gently twist in a downward motion. If this does not happen easily, you may need to remove the pup by cutting downward as close to the mother as possible.”
A good way to learn about air plants is by watching some of the YouTube videos that show the varieties, as well as how to care for and display them. One of the most informative is produced by Oklahoma Gardening: www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jJ4DQtTcqs. As one of the videos points out, children and grandchildren will find air plant care as much fun as their parents and grandparents.
We have started with a <tillandsia xerographica> and a <tillandsia juncea>, but there are many more that are appealing. For those of us living in reduced spaces, air plants are good examples of how to adapt and succeed on a smaller scale.