Watch out, it's a tillandsia! Have no fear, I said "Tillandsia," not Tarantula. Although several species of this plant genus have taken on the appearance of the ominous eight-legged spider, you can rest-assured that these plants do not bite. As the largest genus of the Bromeliad family of plants, tillandsia boast of a characteristic that few other plants have, they have the ability to grow and prosper without soil. Nature has provided them with another mechanism for deriving the moisture and nutrients they need to survive. Though many Tillandsia species have a developed root system, its primary purpose is to secure these epiphytic plants to a host. Tillandsia leaves have specially developed cells called scales or trichomes that allow water and nutrients to be taken in from rain, the air, and dust. When opened, these cells give the plants their silvery-gray, somewhat ashy appearance.
The trichomes work like trap doors; as the plant dries out, the trichomes open to absorb more moisture and nutrients. Once sufficient hydration is achieved, the trichomes close to retain the moisture. Plants whose leaves have a dense concentration of trichomes are generally from an environment that is sunny and dry, and their leaves tend to be grayer and stiffer than those plants from a humid and shady environment. The dense concentration of trichomes on the leaf's surface allows the plant to absorb more moisture and to reflect the harsh effects of the sun.
Tillandsias have truly exquisite foliage. Although when in bloom they are magnificent in appearance, their foliage is their outstanding feature. Most tillandsia only bloom once in their lifetime. After blooming, pups or offsets form around the base or axil of the plants, and will eventually mature and complete their blooming cycle in one to several years. Propagating tillandsia from seed can require the patience of Job since it can take from four to seven years to do so. It is much easier and quicker to propagate by separating the offsets from the "mother" plant after they have reach about ? "her" size.
Create some very eye-catching live plant arrangements using only tillandsia or by combining them with other plants. Since soil is not a requirement for growing tillandsia, more display possibilities are available than with traditional plants. Although displaying your plants can be as simple as hanging them by their roots from a piece of non-copper wire or fishing line, you can use waterproof adhesives such as Liquid Nail, Goop or even hot glue to attach your plants to any substrate that can handle frequent watering. Yes, watering is necessary! The common name for tillandsia, Airplant, is somewhat of a misnomer. In their natural habitat, tillandsias are able to derive all the moisture and nutrients they need from their surrounding. Once removed from that habitat, it is necessary to provide water, light, air circulation and an occasional feeding.
A good dripping-wet watering should be given at least once a week, more depending on the growing conditions. Provide bright indirect lighting; natural sunlight or artificial lighting is acceptable. Though not necessary, feeding your plants monthly with a bromeliad fertilizer or with Rapid Grow/Miracle Grow fertilizers at ? strength during the months of March ? October will greatly enhance growth and blooming. Supply enough air circulation to allow your plants to dry, after watering, in three to four hours. Tillandsias are amazingly resilient plants, able to survive under some of the worst growing conditions. Plant enthusiasts will love the ease of becoming a successful grower of Tillandsia.
Arthur Comer is the author of The Beginner's Guide to Successfully Growing Tillandsias (ISBN 0-9752760-0-X). He is the owner and general manager of the mail order Specialty Plants Company, ALCJR ENTERPRISES. The Virginia Gardener Magazine published a featured article by Arthur in its April 2005 issue. Additional growing tips, images and a wealth of information about these unique plants is available at his web site. http://www.alcjr.com