Ask the master gardeners
Q: Can you tell me more about air plants and whether they would work indoors as houseplants?
A: If you asked someone off the cuff what they thought they would need to grow a plant, they would probably answer soil, water, sun and a pot. But it turns out there are a huge number of plants that don’t need either the soil or the pot. And they make great gifts for anyone interested in gardening.
The Tillandsia genus is a member of the Bromeliad family (Bromeliaceae) and is native to the Americas and Mexico. Found in forests, mountains and deserts, it is a lovely houseplant and a wonderful conversation piece.
It is of the species Epiphyte and probably is best known to the novice planter as Spanish moss, which can be seen when driving through the southern states.
There are those with thin leaves that thrive in rainy areas and others with thicker leaves that can tolerate drier conditions. They typically grow without soil, attached to other plants.
But they are not parasites. Their roots merely anchor them to their perch. They can reproduce by seed or by offsets which are called pups. One plant can have multiple pups. The plants capture moisture and nutrients from structures on the leaves called trichomes. These structures literally absorb the needed material.
Some bloom on a regular basis and often the leaves will change color just prior to blooming.
While needing little care as a houseplant, some attention must be paid. They need to be placed in an area of bright light but not where the plant will get too hot.
In the wild, they obtain moisture from dew and natural rainfall, but they must be regularly watered as a houseplant. Because both sides of the leaves must be watered, the easiest way is to submerge the entire plant for up to 24 hours when it is completely dry. But don’t ever submerge the bloom. The plants tolerate a wide range of temperatures but can be sensitive to frost. They are very sensitive to overfertilization so either ignore it or follow directions explicitly.
Tillandsia is not only beautiful but also useful, as a primary ingredient in an herbal supplement that treats pollen allergy.
Judie Phillips, master gardener with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Westchester