Tillandsia or air plants are epiphytes, which means they grow on other surfaces, rather than in the ground. They use their root system to attach themselves to trees or rocks, and take in nutrients and moisture in the air through their leaves instead of their roots. This is possible because of tiny moisture-trapping scales on their leaves called trichomes, these look like a little white powder on the leaves and give the plants a silvery gray shimmer and are also the reason they don’t need soil to survive. In the wild, air plants take in the water that they need from dew and rain, however inside a house, they cannot survive on the humidity in the air alone.
One unique feature of tillandsia, is that they breathe at night. Plants breathe by opening the stomata on their leaves to take in carbon dioxide. Most plants do this during the day but tillandsia have adapted to breathe at night to conserve water. This means that if the plant is watered in the evening or at night it will not have time to dry before the stomata open and the water will block the stomata, over time causing the plant to suffocate. So ONLY WATER THE PLANTS DURING THE DAY!
Air plants are the largest genus of the bromeliad family, and found most often in South America. There are over 500 species which grow from rainforests to desert environments.
LIGHT + CHOOSING A LOCATION:
If the plant will be indoors, it needs to be near a consistent source of light but out of direct sun. Scorching direct sun can cause the leaves to burn. A window that is in shade part of the day is ideal, but plants will also be fine up to 2m away from a bright window. Fluorescent lighting in an office will also be enough light for a tillandsia to thrive. As a rule, the more silver the plant, the more direct sun it can tolerate. In the hotter summer months, plants will need more shade and extra water. Air plants can do well outdoors on a shaded patio, as long as the temperature does not go below freezing or above 42 degrees. If hanging outside, make sure to bring it in during rain storms and check the decorative moss for dampness. The air plant will rot if sitting in water or wet moss.
In general, plants should be watered 1-2 times per week (up to daily in an extremely dry hot environment and as little as every other week in cooler damper months). Only water during the day so the plants have time to dry out by night, so they can fully take in CO2. If the plant seems dry (leaves curling inward), I recommend giving them a full soak for 1 hour once a month, where they are fully submerged in a cup of water. Supplement these baths with weekly dips. (note that misting alone is not enough to keep the plant alive.) If your plant becomes extremely dehydrated and dry, you can submerge it for up to 6 hours to revive it and then resume the normal watering schedule.
HOW TO WATER:
For weekly dips, in the morning, take the plant out of the himmeli and run it under the faucet until the entire plant is wet or fully submerge it in a bowl of water for one minute.
Allow to thoroughly dry before returning to the himmeli by shaking off excess water or placing upside down on a towel to dry. Be extra careful not to allow any water to remain sitting in the base of the plant, as this can cause rot.
Allow plants to dry completely between waterings.
For monthly baths, remove the air plant from the orb, and put in a bowl of water for about an hour. Follow the same drying precautions as for the weekly baths before returning to the globe.
It is very important to only water plants in the morning when there is sufficient light and time to dry them out before nightfall. Air plants ‘feed’ during the day (when they take in moisture through their leaves) and ‘breathe’ only at night (when they open the stomata on their leaves to take in carbon dioxide). This means that if they are left wet at night, the stomata will be blocked and essentially suffocate the plant.
As a rule, the more silvery varieties can tolerate more sun and less frequent watering than the greener plants. Also, plants with wider leaves usually live in dryer arid climates, and thinner leafed varieties are found in more rainy, humid environments.
If your home uses air conditioning or heating, this often dries out the air, and the plant may require more water during those months.
Allow plants to live somewhere with good air circulation. They love fresh moving air, and also need it to dry out and avoid rot after being watered. Air plants also gather nutrients from the dust in the air, so getting a little air flow is important.
Like most other bromeliad species, tillandsia will flower only once in their lifetime. The flowers can last for a few days to a few months and the process of creating a bloom will often result in a complete transformation of the plant. Many have leaves called bracts, that will change color from green to bright red or yellow in anticipation of the flower. Flowers often shoot out of the center of the plant in bright fuchsias and purples. Although beautiful, the process of flowering is very exhausting for the plant and it needs extra light, water, and fertilizer at this time. After flowering, the plant will sometimes create a baby plant, called a pup. The pup can be removed from the mother plant once it is at least 1/3 the size of the mother. In some cases, the original plant will die after flowering, leaving the baby pup in its place.
Air plants will do well with a little fertilizer mixed into their water bath about once a month. Fertilizing is not necessary to survival but will increase the growth and flowering capacity of your plant. You can use a bromeliad, orchid, or cactus fertilizer diluted at 1/4 strength. Tillandsia are very sensitive to fertilizer, so a tiny bit goes a long way. Copper is also toxic to them so be sure to choose a fertilizer low in copper. Fertilizing is especially good to do during and after the blooming period.
Tillandsia are non-toxic to pets! not ideal that they would be eating your air plant, but at least you don’t have to worry about an emergency room visit!
Curled leaves: indicate that the plant is drying out and needs more frequent watering. Soak for 6 hours in the morning to fully rehydrate, allow to thoroughly dry and resume regular watering schedule. In summer, you may need to water daily for a few days to fully rehydrate.
Rot is caused when the plant does not have enough time/light/air circulation to fully dry out. It usually starts at the base of the plant in the center, but once it sets in, it’s hard to recover from. Leaves may turn gray/brown and fall off. It is better to underwater than overwater your plant to avoid this situation. Make sure the plant is not returned to the orb when it is still wet and that the moss and decorative elements are not retaining any water that the plant could be sitting on.
Red, peach, yellow tips are a sign that your plant is going to bloom and are nothing to be alarmed about. It does however mean it’s time to get a fertilizer and keep an eye on you plant to make sure it is getting everything it needs during the exhausting blooming and reproduction period.
White powdery covering on leaves, looks like fungus? this is actually the stomata and totally healthy! different varieties have more or less noticeable silvery/white scales, which are how they take in water, nothing to be alarmed about.
Time to take a break... Elsje Designs will reopen again on Thursday, 15 January 2015 with fresh ideas. Lana is heading to New York City for two weeks and already we are in anticipation of design inspiration she'll be bringing back. And in my Christmas stocking is a break with Louis to our family home in Hermanus.
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