How can I tell if my airplant is going to pup?

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).

pup no flower.jpg

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.

t seler in pup

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.

t seleriana pup

Like that!


T brachycaulos pup

like this (just in the centre, like a baby bird).

Or on a Tillandsia caput-medusae

tillandsia c-m pup

A slightly lighter silvery green shoot nestling in an older leaf,

And a slightly different variation:

fuchsii grac pup.jpg

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:

t-brachy-big-pup.jpgT c-m pup

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.


Where do I keep an airplant?

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 green ones 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.

velvety close uo

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.


How do I water an airplant?

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).

velvety close uo

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.

draining 1

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.)

How can I tell if my air plant is going to flower?

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:

flowering 2

The second is a change in the balance of growth or shape of the plant.

flowering 3

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.

flowering 4

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.

flowering 5

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.

flowering 6

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.


What is a Tillandsia?

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.


What is an air plant?

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.

Tillandsia ionantha

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.


In central London, in the RHS Lindley Library there is a small exhibition called ‘Potted’. To quote the blurb

“In celebration of the humble houseplant, this exhibition at the RHS Lindley Library presents a series of designs by students from Central Saint Martins college. In a collaborative project with the library, the students have investigated a variety of well-known and well-loved houseplants and created made to measure pots to suit their individual needs.”

Now I think I heard or read something about this (which is why I went) to the effect that the students knew virtually nothing about the plants in question before they started. Which makes for a challenging project; I am not sure how I would go about designing a living environment for an armadillo. Clearly they had advice and did research, but I still think they made a fair stab at it.

I haven’t shown all of them, my phone didn’t take the best of pictures indoors and some of the pots were less interesting to me than others. It is open till next Friday (19th May) and is free to all. It is definitely worth 30 minutes of your time if you are in central London.

I know nothing about pottery or sculpture, so my comments are from the perspective of a houseplant lover. It may be that some of the aspects I dislike have relevance, or make reference to artists or works I am ignorant of.

The first one shown here is to hold lithops, and I found this pot frustrating. Had the plant been angled in the pot so that it was flush with the top rather than revealing the unglazed interior, it would have been brilliant. It must surely have been the intention of the artist for the surfaces of pot and plant to flow into each other?  Planting at an angle in a pot is more difficult that you expect it to be!

more lit

Otherwise I felt it was quite original. The surface mimicked the size and shape of the leaves and the overall shape was intriguingly out of proportion to the plant, almost a lithops volcano. It reminded me in tone of a lot of the more severe type of 70s decor.


A more politically-influenced  vessel with the holder representing the slashing and burning that man has inflicted  upon the rainforest. But within the damage, there is still space for a plant habitat. The colours and textures were particularly eye-catching, and it seemed a good place for a bromeliad (Guzmania).


The third container I have featured was inspired by the trees, rocks and stones that would occur in the native habitat of the plant (Scindapsus). The flowing shapes and varied textures were fascinating. Occupying the tricky ground between ugly and beautiful, the container was big enough to actually house the plant for quite a while.

A failing (for me) of many ornamental containers is that they fit the plant at that moment in time, not allowing for growth. But growth and change is an essential component of why we bring plants into our homes, so needs to be catered for.



Another lithops pot, and while I didn’t like the whiteness of the slashes down the sides, I enjoyed the solidity of the shape and the perforations. The form of the pot mimics the form of the plant, and the markings on the surface of the leaves. If only they had been able to dispense with the plastic plant pot inside…but life is not perfect.