So you have air plants (Tillandsia), they have flowered and you are anxiously pacing up and down waiting for the patter of little leaves.
How can you tell if you need to prepare for another little plant to care for? There are a few signs to look out for.
Air plant lore has it that plants will pup/have offsets/reproduce vegetatively after flowering. This is not always the case, occasionally a plant will pup without flowering, as the plant below did for me this year (in case you are unsure, pup on the left, parent plant on the right).
Once your plant has finished flowering (the colour has dulled, the petals have fallen or dried up), look at the plant. You may find that it has a slightly uneven or bulgy look to it.
This Tillandsia seleriana announced its intention to flower in this new year. It flowered in the spring, and I found the pup in late May/early June. The pups appear in the space where the leaves meet in the centre of the plant, towards the base of the plant. So if you are looking for one, start with the bottomost/outermost leaves and very gently look at their insides to see if you can see a tiny plant.
like this (just in the centre, like a baby bird).
Or on a Tillandsia caput-medusae
A slightly lighter silvery green shoot nestling in an older leaf,
And a slightly different variation:
Tillandisa fuchsii var. gracilis produces a pup towards the centre/top of the plant. You can see the flower spike towards the top right of the picture.
And this is how they grow up:
Air plant lore also has it that the parent plant will die; some will die but as you can tell it doesn’t happen right away. Many species will survive for years after flowering.
Air plants (Tillandsia) need light, water and food in the same way that other plants do. So where do you put your new air plant so that it looks good, and thrives?
Some people put their air plants in the bathroom assuming that they will get enough moisture from the damp air. They won’t, you need to water them.
You can split Tillandsia into two main groups for light needs in the UK. The smooth greenones like T. butzii, T. tricolor, T. pseudobaileyi, T. bulbosa (clockwise from top left) need daylight but not direct sun.
In practical terms this means a windowsill that the sun doesn’t get to, or only shines first thing or last thing. Or a brightly lit area that is shaded (which sounds like a contradiction in terms….) for example a hallway that gets a lot of reflected light, an enclosed porch or conservatory that is shaded by trees or other buildings.
The other group is the silvery, velvety ones like T. ixioides, T. fuchsii var. gracilis,T. oaxacana, T. seleriana (anti-clockwise from top left) T. tectorum and T. caput-medusae.
These plants can tolerate a lot more light, because the silvery, velvety hairs (trichomes) on their leaves reflect harsh light and protect them.
So these plants will enjoy a bit of direct sun, and can be put somewhere where they will get direct sun for a few hours a day.
A note of caution with new plants; plants, like people need to get used to new situations. So introduce new plants to a vanilla, goldilocks environment first. Somewhere that is not too dark, not too light, just a bit boring. By this I mean an area with no direct sun, that doesn’t get too hot or cold (not above 22c or below 15c). Once they have settled in you can put them somewhere more appropriate.
An air plant will not survive well under artificial light, it’s unlikely that it will get the right sort of light unless you get specialist growing lights.
In terms of temperature they will be ok if you are comfortable without outside clothes on. They can go outside in the summer, once night temperatures are regularly over 10c. As with all plants, extremes or wild fluctuations are bad (don’t do as I did years ago and put a plant in front of the fire to keep it warm when the rest of the house is sub-zero). And remember that as with humans more heat and light means dehydration, so you will need to water more if your plant is somewhere warmer and lighter.
And yes, if you keep your air plant in the cold and dark, you won’t need to water at all. This will be because it has died.
An air plant needs water, food and light like other plants do. Because it doesn’t root in the soil and lives off the ground, many people think it doesn’t need watering and lives on air.
This is wrong.
This is why your air plants have died.
It doesn’t use its roots to take up water, it uses its leaves. They have special hairs that act like little sponges (among other very clever things).
To be able to act like sponges they need to be exposed to water. In the wild they live in places where water literally falls from the sky. This doesn’t happen in the home, or we hope it doesn’t. So you will need to water them.
They can be soaked in the sink or run under the tap, or popped in the shower. Or dunked, like a digestive biscuit in a mug.
In the winter they only need about 10-20 minutes soaking or a quick shower (cold water!); in the summer they will need longer or more frequent waterings. Tap water is fine, rain water is not needed for air plants.
The most important thing about watering is that you do it. The second most important thing is that you drain your plants afterwards. Air plants are basically funnel-shaped, and unless it is very warm and dry, they will die of rot if water gets stuck in the bottom of the funnel. So make sure that they are dry before you put them back where they live.
This is why many air plant displays are ‘upside down’ so that there is little danger of the plant rotting.
Learn to judge how your air plant is by holding it to see what temperature it is. A healthy plant should feel slightly cool and resilient in your hand. If it feels the same temperature as the room, and a bit rustly or crackly it probably needs watering. This does take practice! Try touching house plants, holding their leaves gently in your hands to take their temperature and feel how much water they have. You will get the feel for it after a while, and one that is too dry will feel wrong, like a dog with a dry nose. (It doesn’t work so well on a plant that is in full sun, like a sun-bathing cat, they heat up nicely.)
In the south east corner of the UK, my air plants seem to flower either in the late summer or in the late winter (very roughly).
It takes a long time for them to build up to it, rather like giving out ‘save the day’ cards to all their friends, and then faffing around for months about what to wear.
The main signs are flushing of leaves – green leaves getting a pinkish or reddish tinge to them. I have my suspicions about this Tillandsia ionantha:
The second is a change in the balance of growth or shape of the plant.
Above is a Tillandsia brachycaulos that I actually thought was protesting about poor light levels. It produced the stretched section of stem that you can see in the centre of the photo. I brought it home from the office and stuck it somewhere more conducive and within a couple of days I noticed that the leaves were flushing. Ah.
Tillandsia tectorum above, has recently started growing taller in the middle, which may be an indication that it is initiating flowering or it may not. If it is I will post more pictures.
Tillandsia seleriana above, shows no flushing, but a definite change in growth habit, with a paler section growing in a slightly different direction to the main plant. It took another month before the bud was visible.
Some plants, like Tillandsia fuchsii var. gracilis above just stick out a flower without warning. This was the first I noticed of this one. It may be that the slight bunching of the leaves in the centre was a clue.
A Tillandsia is the scientific name for what many people call an air plant.
They are members of the bromeliad family, and most are epiphytes.
Other bromeliads are the pineapple, spanish moss and the plant in which small frogs live, mentioned by Terry Pratchett in the Bromeliad Trilogy.
Tillandsias are mostly smaller and more able to resist drought than their larger relatives. They have evolved many adaptations over time to enable them to do this.
They flower and produce seed, but they also produce small plants called offsets or pups that are attached to the parent plant. These plants often remain attached, creating big clumps of one type of plant over time.
There are several hundred types of tillandsia, ranging from extremely tiny to large, but most live off the ground, which limits their ultimate size to something that their host can bear without collapsing.
An air plant is one that lives off the ground, away from the soil. The scientific term is epiphyte (epi – above, over, on; phyte – plant), which really refers to plants that live on other plants.
An air plant doesn’t and can’t live on air. It still needs sun, water and nutrients in the same way that plants living in the soil do. It obtains these from rain, minerals and organic matter that are part of its growing environment. In some situations these aren’t plentiful, so the plant will grow slowly.
If you buy an air plant hoping it will be maintenance free; it will, but only after it has died.
Many plants are epiphytes, they live on trees, rocks, telephone wires, fences, other plants and buildings; anything that doesn’t move too much.
When people say air plants they normally mean Tillandsia.
I am a failed Generation X. Somewhere along the way I ended up renting instead of being a Buy-to-let squillionaire. As the oldest millennial horticulturist, I needed to find a way to garden in a rented property.
When I moved into my current home (imagine a single-storey box with a flat roof, cover it in gravel-dash*, and add more double-glazing units than feasible for a 1.2 bedroom property) the garden looked like the photo below. I love drying washing outside, after 8 years of not being able to, so you will see the washing umbrella frequently in photos.
I have very energetic friends who wouldn’t think twice about digging the whole thing up, planting it, and then returfing when they moved on. However I am both too lazy, and too frugal to do that sort of thing.
The garden is north-east facing, and the soil is probably builder’s rubbish over London clay, but I haven’t looked too closely. The grass has very dry patches in the summer, which suggest rubble underneath. The big advantage is that it is fenced to a minimum height of about 1.2m, so that the cat can potter around without causing me to have a panic attack.
I had to come to terms with the lawn. I like mowing, but not lawns. As I needed to keep it, I decided it should have more use than a green carpet. My cat is blind, so I left areas of to grow, and mowed some to make it more interesting for both of us. It also attracts a wider range of insects to the garden, and allows more interesting plants to appear.
If you want to do this, you can either map it out (rope, string, hose, flour, line marking spray), or just improvise as you mow.
Leaving some of the grass unmowed also means that there is more cover for wildlife, so I do have frogs and a toad in the garden.
I mow the whole lawn a couple of times in March when it starts to grow (I am coastal South East England), then mow to a pattern, and leave the long bits until about October when I mow the whole lot off. My very, very small electric rotary mower is ok with this, but a strimmer would make it easier). I left a patch of long grass over winter last year and it did get really scruffy looking by the spring, so for the overall health of the lawn it is better to do the autumn cut.
Borrowing neighbours’ trees is useful. I am grateful for the various conifers, olive trees, prunus and yucca they have planted. They provide structure, privacy, and food for the birds.
Some neighbours I have tentatively invited in. There is a wisteria that pops through, and vinca that appears on both sides. As I have been here a couple of years now, there are also seedlings appearing from geraniums and erodiums that I grow in pots.
My own plants are in pots though. These are the ones that I have brought with me from my last home, that I water and feed to keep alive. So they have to be important to me to justify this outlay of effort.
In the summer (from April-ish to October-ish here) a lot of my houseplants are outdoors. I put them out in stages; those that will tolerate just about freezing, those that will tolerate down to 5c, and the tropicals which really need to stay above 10-15c.
The structure is created by a number of large, permanent plants in pots, which I will describe in a later post.
*I would call it pebble dash but it blends seamlessly into the gravel when it falls off. Which it does if you touch it, it is very sensitive. Perhaps I should call is Snowflake-dash, but that sounds like a very exciting Christmas film.