Thursday, December 15, 2011

How To Grow Tillandsia Air Plants

Air plants are also called Epiphytes. These are plants that don't grow in soil, but grow hanging from trees or tucked into the nooks and crannies of rocks. There's one type of air plant that is very popular here in Cape Town. It's called Tillandsia. It's not an indigenous plant (it's originally from North and South America) but it does do well in our climate.

Above: Most Capetonians are familiar with the sight of Tillandsia air plants. These are usually grown suspended from tree branches, fences or trellises.

It's a fairly common belief that air plants draw nutrients from the air and therefore don't need water or fertilizer. This isn't true. Air plants draw nutrients from organic matter (leaves, flowers, insects etc) that get trapped between their leaves. Although they are fairly drought-hardy, air plants do need water, especially in South Africa's dry seasons. 
I water mine twice a week in summer and once every two weeks in winter, spritzing the plants with a spray bottle until the water drips off. Once a month in summer I'll put some fertilizer in water and soak the plants with this mix. 
My plants hang from a home-made bamboo frame on my porch, and don't receive rain water or direct sunlight. They seem happy enough in solid shade, though the leaves do seem to grow a bit longer in the shade than they did in a sunnier spot. Once a month or so, I'll take the frame off the wall and prop it up on the porch railing for a bit of late afternoon sunlight. (When we move, I'll find a permanent spot for my Tillandsia that is a little warmer and receives more sunlight.)
The best place for these plants is in full shade, under the protective branches of a tree or the overhang of a roof with strong reflected light. They need regular water, but don't respond well to being constantly wet (ie, they won't survive on the soggy ground next to a pond) Although they can withstand wind, Tillandsia is happier in a sheltered area.

Above: Tillandsia air plant on my home-made bamboo frame. 

I made my frame from "bamboo" (it's not really bamboo, but a local reed that has a similar structure). I cut the bamboo to size, sanded and cleaned it, and then tied it together with yarn. I varnished it to bring out the rich colors of the reed. Because the frame is protected from the elements, I didn't seal the cut ends with anything more permanent than a layer of varnish.
The clump of Tillandsia on my frame (see above picture) is actually made up of several small plants. These were given to me by a friend after a storm shredded her large Tillandsia. I connected the air plants to the frame with hooks twisted out of wire. It's a reliable method, but the plant does need to be checked every few years to ensure that the wire isn't choking the plant or disintegrating.

Above: The length and color of Tillandsia's leaves depends largely on how much light they receive. My plants are grown in solid shade, and therefore the leaves are longer and greener than those of plants grown in a sunnier area.

Tillandsia can also be grown in wire hanging baskets, or simply suspended from a beam. Don't plant tillandsia in soil, as this will lead to the plants rotting slowly and dying. They grow well in humid areas, such as bathrooms or above a water feature, just be sure not to over water air plants in humid areas.
One of the clumps flowered shortly after I received it. I haven't seen any flowers since then, but I'm hoping to see them again. They're beautiful, and well worth the wait. (If you have some tips for getting Tillandsia to flower, please comment below.)

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