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 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.

‘Tis the season…

…to bring the last of your houseplants indoors if they have been holidaying outside.

Here in the far south east of England the temperatures have dropped to about 3c overnight, which means that even the mediterranean-type plants (those hardy to just above or brief periods below 0c) will need protection.

If you are faced with squeezing the last of your plants into an overcrowded living environment you are not alone, this is what I have learned from years of trying.

Coming in from the cold

You will need to tidy up your plants before you bring them in – remove weed seedlings, dead`and damaged leaves and check under the pot. This is where the slugs and snails hide. If you have bare compost you can top with grit or gravel, this makes the plant easier to water and also discourages sciarid flies (often known as bin flies or compost gnats) that live around compost. Check to see how damp the compost is, so that you are able to bring them into synchrony with your watering routine. If it has rained recently and they are soaked through,  you may not need to water for a couple of weeks, but this is very dependant on where you site them (sun/shade) and how warm your home is.

During the summer your plants will have become accustomed to a lot more light than they will receive in your home (unless they are to move into a conservatory or similar). They will also have grown a bit tougher and stronger through dealing with wind and rain. They will need good daylight, and also a period of adjustment to the change in conditions. Depending on the number of plants you have, you may need to prioritise the light levels; south and west facing windowsills for cacti and succulents, north facing for dark-leaved foliage plants etc. You will also need to find them saucers or pot-covers so that they don’t drip onto your surfaces.

Containers and pot-covers

In my experience the use of pot-covers and containers is the main reason that people overwater their plants. The plant can sit for weeks or months in a puddle of water without it being obvious until it is too late. If you know that you are an nurturer and overwater your plants, use attractive pots with drainage and either matching saucers or transparent plastic ones. Alternatively you can use a layer of 1cm or so of gravel at the bottom of your pot to give yourself a safety margin. Or get into the routine of emptying out your pot-covers an hour after each watering.

Space creation

I never have enough space as I have a tendency to buy plants over the summer when I have a comparatively empty indoor space, and then quail in horror each autumn when I realise I have to house all of them. This is what I do to get past this problem.windowsill

You can expand your windowsill space using shelving (or if you are in a rental, a piece of driftwood balanced on pots). This enables you to make use of as much light as possible and gives you an attractive display.You will note that i am using a range of saucers and containers, partly because I err towards the neglectful, so I can get away with some undrained containers. There is a terracotta saucer being used in addition to the plastic tray for one pot, this because unglazed terracotta is porous and will damage surfaces that it sits upon; it will (as a friend can testify) turn carpet mouldy underneath and raise paint and varnish.


Put plants on top of other plants – if you have larger plants like this Ficus lyrata you will have a whole extra surface to keep things on. When you are doing it, bear in mind how much light will make it down to the understorey of your houseplant forest. As you can see by the graininess of this photo, it isn’t very light here, but Aspidistra ‘Milky Way’ is quite tolerant of low light levels.


Another example here, a Philodendron bipinnatifidum (in a cat bed that the cat disapproves of) supporting a Tradescantia and a Ledebouria. The philodendron spent the whole summer outside, and is stretching (etiolating) in the comparatively low light indoors, the leaves stay the same size but the stalks extend to get closer to the light.

You can also use mirrors (one here propped up on the floor with a spider plant) to reflect the light you have to make the most of it. If like me, you also have a lot of air plants, they are very happy pinned to chicken wire screens (mine is hung from the curtain hooks) over a window. And at the bottom, many of my cacti and succulents together, taking advantage of their similar cultural requirements to make my life easier.

Supplementary lighting

I have not found supplementary lighting much use in a domestic environment for houseplants. The majority of lighting that is suitable for plants (in terms of wavelength, strength and heat transmission) has to be placed very close to them to be of any benefit, and therefore tends not to be either practical or aesthetically pleasing. However, with LEDs becoming much more common in these field I am hoping that eventually gains in this area will carry over from commercial and er.. underground horticulture to create something usable in the average home.


Remember to give your plants time to adjust, and keep an eye out for sneaky pests like tortrix moth caterpillar (see above on begonia), and sudden changes in growth habit (can be a sign of overwatering).

#urbanjungle #plantselfie



Urban Jungle is a global community of plant lovers started by Igor and Judith. As part of the Urban Jungle blog topic for September this is my #plantselfie. Go and check out the other blogs in the series – if you think indoor plants are dull or stuck in the 70s, they will change your mind.

Lower shelf in the porch

As I am not terribly keen on pictures of myself on the blog, here is Mercy among her plants. This is my rather rickety front porch, full of succulents and cacti. I love nearly* all plants, but have a long-standing obsession with houseplants and pelargoniums. At the last count I had 112 plants indoors, in a 1.5 bedroom flat. As it is summer (just) still there are quite a few of them outside still.  My first love was a swiss-cheese plant and my current obsession is tillandsias.

austin leaf
Monstera deliciosa (a leaf without spots of emulsion paint)


Below is one of my tillandsias (T. seleriana)holidaying outside on a pine tree, and a begonia that is also out for the summer.

I have worked in horticulture for nearly 20 years, and I have just finished a Masters in Ethnobotany, for which my final dissertation addressed the question of why people grow houseplants. I am currently working as a Research Assistant and have a small Etsy shop selling airplants and houseplants. I started the shop as a distraction and an outlet for my fidgeting while I was studying and I will be widening the range soon.


One of the aspects that interests me is trying to stretch people’s imagination about what they can grow where. We tend to feel that windowsills are the be-all-and-end-all of houseplant habitat. They can be grown in so many more positions, and are so undemanding ( I spend less than an hour a week looking after mine).


This hanging bowl is a potential solution for those who want to have plants at eye level but are worried about leaks and drips. I am interested to see what the roots do, whether they are affected by the light or not, and how difficult it is to water. I have used very easy to care for plants to start with (Asparagus densiflorus Sprengeri  Group and Plectranthus verticillatus).


I see a lot of succulent arrangements which look impractical to me because they have little or no drainage. So I decided to make one to see if the plants rotted over the winter, if it works I may put some sort of variation in the shop.

p1010438This little spider plant has survived three months so far in its tin can planter (again, no drainage hole) in full sun. p1010442

This hanging arrangement of spider plants in a piece of burnt terracotta found on the beach is the result of a mad hour of fidgeting. The compost and plants are anchored in chicken wire and have been in-situ for a couple of months. Not as hard to water as you might think, but it is quite heavy and needs to hang from something sturdy.


More fiddling, this time a Tillandsia juncea (or juncifolia).

*I am not overly keen on Symphoricarpos  and might wince very politely upon receipt of a poinsettia.