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.


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.

Tillandsia caput-medusae

This year I developed a ‘thing’ about air plants. It started with buying just one, meaning to attach it to an object to make a present for someone. Almost in the same way that you would stick on a sequin I guess. But of course, as soon as I actually touched it, I remembered that it was a life-form, not a bit of plastic.

So I got a couple more, and started trying to understand how they work. The easiest to observe in a short period of time (air plants live in slow time) is Tillandsia caput-medusae.


Tillandsia, named for Mr Tillandz (1640-1693) a Finnish botanist, by Linnaeus (many thanks Wikipedia) is a big genus, part of the Bromeliaceae family. They tend to originate in South and Central America, though not exclusively. Tillandsia caput-medusae invites comparison between the structure of the plant and the snake-hair of the Medusa’s head (lit. caput medusae). There are 4 specimens above, and you can see how they do (or don’t) fit the picture below. They tend to coil slightly more tightly when they are in need of watering.


Tillandsias are popularly known as air plants, which probably leads to the death of thousands in the home. The ‘air’ in air plant refers to their epiphytic nature: they live in air (on other plants, rocks, trees, phone wires, etc) rather than in soil. They don’t live on air, particularly not in centrally-heated domestic homes.


In the absence of roots, tillandsias absorb both water and nutrients through silvery trichomes on the surface of their leaves – seen in the above photo. These trichomes have three functions for the plant: their silvery colour reflects bright sunlight, they allow water to be absorbed from rain and atmospheric humidity, and they protect that water from evaporating once it has been captured. If you have an airplant, it is important that you bear this in mind when you are caring for it. It needs access to water regularly or it will die of dehydration, but it is in danger of rotting if the water is allowed to gather and rest in the spaces between the leaves.

Watering should therefore be done once or twice a week, depending on the conditions the plant is living it (sunny window in warm conditions – twice; no sun, chillier conditions – once). All it needs is to be run under the tap, or popped in a bowl of water for a bit. If your plant gets dehydrated leave it in a bowl of water overnight. As with all houseplants, it really helps to understand how your plant feels when it is healthy. You won’t damage it if you handle it regularly, as long as you are careful. A healthy plant will feel slightly cooler than ambient, and it will feel gently springy rather than crispy in your hand. This will vary between species of tillandsia, but for caput-medusae firm and gently springy is good.

Then drain it (on a teatowel or whatever comes to hand) for an hour or two, upside down so that the water can drain out from between the leaves. If your plant is growing upside down anyway, so much the better.

One of my caput-medusae caught me out by flowering long before I had expected it to. I am told that one way to encourage them to flower is to feed (weekly-weakly) with very dilute plant food, I use about 1/10th the recommended rate for my plants.  As you can see on the photo above the flower-stem comes from the centre of the plant in this case, and starts off green with pink tinges.


The inflorescence takes quite a while to develop, but once the purple flowers appear they last a very short time, slightly less than a day per flower with this plant. That said, the flowers are produced one at a time, so the display is quite long-lasting, and immensely attractive.


And once the flowers fade, the plant should move on to producing an offset  (a clone plant that remains attached to the parent until it is of sufficient size to live independently). You can just see the offset nestling in an older leaf at the bottom of the plant here.


Over time, the plants will produce a mass of many plants. Pictures of plants in the wild here, and here.

Update photos of offset: 8-10-16. (The wire is not for the purpose of restraint but suspension).