By the University of Illinois Extension
Unusual-looking plants are showing up in some very unusual places, said Greg Stack, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.
"These plants look like tufts of grass, and they are often seen inside of glass globes suspended from little stands on the tops of tables and desks; attached to pieces of bark, cork or wood; suspended from ceilings on fishing line; or laid on a bed of rocks in a shallow dish," Stack said. "These plants are catching the eye of many indoor gardeners because they appear to offer a lot of interesting color and texture while seeming to require very minimal care. It's almost as if they survive on the air itself because you never see them in a pot of soil. And that is exactly why they are often referred to as air plants."
Air plants, whose formal name is Tillandsia, are members of the bromeliad family and comprise more than 500 different species that actually make very attractive houseplants.
Most tillandsias use their root systems to attach themselves to trees and rocks and absorb needed moisture and nutrients through their leaves. This makes them epiphytes, plants that use something else for support while not really harming what it is they are attached to, Stack explained. Absorption occurs through small scales on their leaves, and these scales give the plants their unique silver or gray appearance.
"With the popularity of these plants, they are starting to appear just about everywhere, enticing shoppers to buy a few as 'fashionable accessories' for decorating," Stack said. "Despite their carefree appearance, they still require some attention if you want to keep them happy and healthy."
The three most important requirements for keeping tillandsias in good condition are bright light (but not direct sun), good air circulation and water, Stack said.
"Indoors, a south, east or west window provides an ideal location for allowing the plant to receive bright filtered light," Stack said. "During the summer, they enjoy being outside hung from a tree or other locations where they can receive light shade and protection from direct sun.
Watering is the next critical requirement. "Indoors, tillandsias like to receive water about two to four times a week in the form of very heavy misting to the point of runoff," Stack said. "That interval may shorten a bit especially during the winter months when indoor conditions tend to become drier during heating season. Allow the plant to dry between waterings."
Stack recommended watching the leaves to determine if the plant is receiving enough water.
"If they start to curl or roll, that indicates dehydration," Stack said. "If that happens, submerge the plant in water overnight to rehydrate and then shake the excess water from the plant before returning it to its display location. The green leaf forms need a little bit more moisture than the gray leaf types.
Tillandsias also like good air circulation as the air helps dry the plant between watering and prevents disease.
While not absolutely necessary, a light application of fertilizer about once a month will keep plants vigorous, Stack said. However, he cautioned that too much fertilizer can harm them.
"Use a liquid type of fertilizer with an analysis such as 10-5-5 and dilute it to about one-quarter the suggested dosage," Stack said. "This is then applied to the plant in the normal watering process."
If blooms do occur, Stack described them as exotic and beautiful and lasting from days to months.
"While blooms are not guaranteed, the normal bloom cycle is in late winter and mid-summer," he said.
As for displaying these plants, Stack said they can be enjoyed in nearly any type of growing environment.
Remember that tillandsias are epiphytic and don't need a pot full of soil to grow, so that opens up a whole lot of possibilities of how you might want to display them, Stack said.
"They are often mounted onto something or hung individually in clusters with fishing line from the ceiling," he said." Given this method of display and the fact that they are exotic-looking to begin with, a grouping of tillandsias can almost make you think that you are looking at a living coral reef. Whatever you choose to use as a mount, be sure that the material does not hold water. Tillandsias can easily be mounted to cork, wood, rocks, bark or any other solid surface, using any commercially available adhesive such as liquid nails or hot glue. They can also be tied to the mount using wire."
The next time you run across plants laid out on a table that look like good fake plants, look closer, Stack said. "They are probably tillandsias, and they just might be the plant for you, given their very minimal demands for care."