Air Plant Myths Busted

Air plants are becoming increasingly popular and are a great addition to your home or garden, but they are often misunderstood. We bust some myths to help you understand this varied and versatile group of plants:

· All plants that grow without soil are air plants.

There are many epiphytic plants that grow without soil, but the plants that are usually described as air plants are from the Tillandsia genus from the South American bromeliad family. Tillandsias are different from most other plants because they absorb their water and nutrients through their leaves rather than their roots. The roots are used only for anchorage, to hold onto a tree or rockface in nature. This makes tillandsias hugely versatile; you can mount them or hang them from almost anything.

· Air plants survive on air alone.

Tillandsias are low-maintenance, but no plant is no-maintenance. Tillandsias don’t absorb atmospheric moisture and so their leaves need to get wet to be able to absorb the water. They need regular water if they aren’t getting rain and dew. Air plants also like plenty of bright light and good air circulation. They are nutrient scavengers so don’t require heavy feeding, but a regular feed of a general liquid plant food at a quarter of the usual strength is very beneficial.

· Tillandsias are all grey and not very exciting.

There are over 700 Tillandsia species as well as many more cultivars and hybrids, so they are certainly not all the same. Tillandsias grow in a wide variety of climates and positions in the wild, and this is reflected in the variety of colours, shapes and sizes of plants available. In general, those that are more grey or silver in colour, such as T. xerographica and T. tectorum, prefer warmer and drier conditions. Those that are fleshier and greener, such as T. brachycaulos, are mesic and like less full sun and more water. Some plants, including T. mallemontii and T. filifolia, have very fine, delicate leaves, and these tend to prefer a very airy position. There are other more robust, stiff-leafed forms, such as T. fasciculata and T. ixioides.

Many tillandsias change the colour of their leaves depending on their life cycle and light conditions. Tillandsia ionatha and T. veltuina are just two whose leaves blush bright red in bright light and before they bloom. It is a method developed by the plants to attract their hummingbird pollinators.

· They are foliage plants and the flowers are insignificant.

All tillandsias are capable of flowering: some will grow very large over several years before they flower, and others reproduce easily by producing vegetative pups, so are more reluctant to flower. Many more have beautiful showy inflorescences. The most striking part of a tillandsia flower is often the flower spike and bracts, which are often highly colourful and long-lasting. Tillandsia tricolor has a red, green and yellow spike. The actual flowers may emerge one at a time, and there are a huge variety of colours of petals: red, purple, yellow and white. There are some great air plants that are perfect for beginners (such as T. stricta and T. aeranthos) that flower very reliably, usually in spring and again in late summer, and produce large clumps of pink and purple flowers over time.

· Air plants don’t last for long.

Like many plants in the bromeliad family, tillandsias flower once and then gradually die off. After flowering the vast majority produce pups at the base or along the flower spike. These pups grow much more quickly than seed-grown plants. The new plants can be removed once they are 1/3 of the size of the parent plant, or left to form a fabulous specimen clump.

With a little care, light and regular water tillandsias will last for many years.

· Air plants are too expensive.

Seed-grown tillandsias take around 6 years to grow from seed to a reasonably sized young plant. The number of pups a plant produces varies between species but probably averages at 3 – 4, which will take 2 – 3 seasons to mature. This means that it takes time to produce plants of a reasonable size in any quantity, and is why large specimen plants and clumps will be many years old. A reasonably sized T. xerographica will easily be 10 years old, and very large ones will be over 30. This is reflected in the price of the plants. There are also some plants that are not readily available in South Africa, so there is often a rarity element to the price. However, there are many plants available at entry level price points, and it is important to remember that the number of plants you have will increase every time they bloom.

Tillandsias are a fascinating genus and there is a plant to suit every grower, beginner or expert, whether you have a large garden or a tiny balcony. Ask for some advice and give them a try!

The Gardener