Hilltop Farm From the Air

Hilltop's Variety Spotlight

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Tillandsias (a.k.a. "Air Plants")

Tillandsias are newly fashionable plants that hail from the subtropical area of North and South America. These epiphytes are usually found growing on other plants or above ground things such as rocks. They do not act as parasites on other plants; they just use the host plant for support and to have an advantageous location. Tillandsias "live" on the natural rain and dew and use the "drop-in" organic matter absorbed through their leaves. Their roots are strictly for anchoring and are not used as food and water gathering tools like in other plants. Many Tillandsias have few to no roots at all. Don't panic. Since the roots are only used as anchoring tools, those that do not need anchoring will have few or no roots.

By misting these small plants daily or the occasional sink-soak, you are mimicking their exposure in the real world. (Yes, they do need water!) A dilute Miracle Gro solution used as an hour-long soak once a month or as a weekly mist spritz will help provide the minimal nutritional needs of these plants (since we usually don't have bird droppings and bits and pieces of decomposting leaves and insects in our homes falling on the plants.) These plants are used to the occasional drought, so if you take a week off they will look drier when you return but will easily rehydrate with an hour spent soaking in the sink.

The fuzzy hairs on the surface of the leaves of Tillandsias are called trichomes. Trichomes hold and absorb moisture and plant food dissolved in the water. They function in the same way roots do on other plants. Trichomes also shelter the rest of the plant from too much sun and also help keep the plant from drying out too fast. Tillandsias found in drier areas have more fuzzy tricomes protecting the plant in their less hospitable climate. This is similar to other plants found in high light dry areas that have a white fuzzy coating, which also helps hold in the moisture and cut down on too much sunlight. Examples of such plants are lavender and artemisias.

These surprisingly tough plants do need a bright spot for long-time survival and thrival. Many consider Tillandsias as "low light" plants, as in, they will grow anywhere. Not so. To grow well (and bloom) Tillandsias need a bright (east) window with a few hours of direct morning sun, or a (west) window with a bit fewer hours of direct evening sun. A south window would need a sheer. Outside in the summer, dapple shade is best. That said, you can keep a Tillandsia in less than optimum light for a short while and then return it to its brighter "growing" spot. Some people keep several Tillandsias and rotate them around. The key to keeping your plants alive with this rotation is to keep the plants in the sunnier spot for much longer than the "dark" spot.

Normal house temperatures are perfect or these odd-ball plants. In central Florida, where some Tillandsias are native, during most winters, temperatures occasionally dip to below freezing with little or no injury. Dry house air is also not a deal-breaker - their trichome covered skin will help hold in the moisture. Tillandsias are pretty well equipped to not just survive, but thrive, in our inside conditions.

Tillandsias will bloom, but some blooms are more attractive than others. In general, the inflorescence (flower) consists of colorful bracts surrounding the true petals and stamens. The duration of bloom varies from type to type. Some bloom better than others, but all need to be mature plants to flower. The best way to encourage a tillandsia to bloom is to give it the maximum allowable light. Once the original plant blooms, it will slowly wither away as that bloom fades, but not before leaving behind one or two new pups to replace the main one that dies.

Tillandsias should remain healthy and happy in their stands or hangers for many months. Many Tillandsias will slowly produce pups as side growths. These pups are genetically identical to the original. This method of multiplication can help form nice colonies. These slow growing colonies can, over time, produce a gorgeous ball of small, identical plants. They could be teased apart, but I think they look the most interesting as a multiple plant clump.

Variety Spotlight #16, 11/26/2018 © Hilltop Farm

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