Air plants are the new It Girl. From the common grocery store checkout aisle to the upscale garden center, they’re pretty much everywhere. They’re even turning up in the houses of your less-horticulturally inclined friends (which was probably your first clue that this particular plant trend isn’t just for those who know a hydrangea from a haworthia.)
The great thing about plant trends – as opposed to fashion, furniture, homes, colors, cars and just about every other activity or product on which one can spend money – is that, well, they’re plants. They continue to live and prosper long after stainless steel is deemed “so yesterday,” and skinny jeans are thrown out of closets to make room for the next wave of unflattering attire.
Plants live on however, and a new trend means we are given the opportunity to delve deeply into the genus (or genre for that matter), as growers and vendors scramble to find new and interesting varieties with which to wow consumers. Just try asking for an air plant fifteen years ago. Unless you were in Florida at the time, it probably didn’t get you anything but a blank look. Today you’ll be shown a variety of ways to separate you from your money, and the chances are, you’ll hand it over with a smile on your face.
So let’s embrace this particular trend and learn a little bit about these low-maintenance, extra-terrestrial-esque plants known affectionately as air plants and horticulturally as Tillandsia spp. They’re easy to care for, fun to arrange, and not only bring a bit of excitement to your inside spaces, but will happily spend the growing season outside, soaking up our Mid-Atlantic heat, rain and humidity and giving corners of the garden an eclectic kick – not to mention a terribly hip vibe.
What are air plants and where do they come from?
Tillandsia species come from warmer zones than ours. According to the latest estimates from Kew Royal Botanic Gardens there are over 600 species originating in the Southern United States, Central and South America and the West Indies. Some are rock-dwelling lithophytes, but for the most part, they are epiphytic – which is to say, they grow upon other plants for support, but do not rely upon them for nourishment.
With the aid of fine hair-like structures along their leaves, they absorb water and nutrients and often live most of their lives in the canopy of trees – benefitting from ambient organic material such as leaves, dead insects and dust.
Head a few hours south to Zone 9 and you will glimpse one of the most commonly recognized tillandsia – the stuff of Southern gardens and Anne Rice novels– T. usneoides, or Spanish moss. There are few sights more haunting than an ancient Southern Live Oak draped with its long gray threads. Spanish moss is the hardiest of the species – but most tillandsia require night-time temperatures greater than 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
So what’s the big deal? Why are air plants currently pushing out succulents as the hot new plant you’ve just got to try? Will they survive on nothing but air? Do you have to be under thirty to own one? Let’s hit just a few of the reasons why tillandsia are stealing market share and making us all sit up and take notice.
Air Plants: Versatility, Period.
Unlike succulents, tillandsia don’t need soil. As they don’t need soil, they can live in and on virtually anything – and that means clipped to a cupboard door or hanging from a pot rack.
Thanks to a new line from LiveTrends Design, I’ve got one that hangs on a necklace around my neck and attracts more attention than the words coming out of my mouth.
They’re versatile, and that makes them cool.
Air Plants: A Low Maintenance Choice.
Before I throw that term around as casually as it is being thrown these days, let me define it. Low maintenance is not ‘no maintenance.’ Low maintenance plants ask little from their owners, but you do need to know what ‘little’ is.
When it comes to tillandsia, they need bright but diffused light – so setting them in a south facing window is right out. Average light from an average window will usually suffice.
They also need a regular dunking about once every two weeks for 1-2 hours – though you can push it a little bit if you regularly mist them. You really can’t skip the bath and maintain good overall health with these guys. As for misting – consider it a bonus, and an opportunity to feed them with a bit of bromeliad fertilizer put into the mister (tillandsia are of the bromeliaceae family).
During the growing season, our high summer rainfall and humidity will usually suffice in keeping them alive and happy, but if I’m watering other pots I’ll always give them an extra splash.
Air Plants: A Minimalist Vibe.
Fashion is fashion, and tillandsia hit a lot of buttons here. They come in a range of fascinating shapes and colors, bloom in gorgeous neon shades, and can be attached to virtually anything with a bit of wire. The greys and greens of tillandsia enhance the taupes & browns of trendy minimalist interiors, and they don’t take up a lot of trendy minimalist space. Tablescape with tillandsia and you’re guaranteed a few dinner party talking points, as well as the respect of friends who have no idea how easy they are to grow.
Air Plants: Indoors or Out.
Tillandsia are not a difficult plant to overwinter indoors. In fact, many people growing tillandsia are growing them for their indoor effect – the fact that they can enhance the garden outside is a huge bonus. As they are so unusual and versatile, they beg to be used in curious ways. I’ve had them inhabiting a birdcage, spilling out of an old scale, attached to pieces of driftwood, wired to the stems of larger woody plants, and enhancing a collection of old terracotta pots. Fun.
Air Plants: Easy to Find.
And here we come back to why plant trends are great. Air plants are hot, hot, hot. As such, you’ve got more options than you’ve ever had to get your hands on them. Independent garden centers are your best bet, but not the only ones in the market. You can find tillandsia online, at grocery stores, upscale fashion boutiques, florists and big boxes.
I have even seen a few in an impulse-buy kiosk at a convenience store (and instinctively said a prayer for their long-term survival). Doritos and an air plant is an unconventional pairing, but then, there’s nothing conventional about air plants.
Air Plants: Foliage first. Flower if you must.
Tillandsia will bloom in long neon spikes in optimum conditions, but that weird and wonderful foliage means that you won’t be too disappointed if they don’t. Mature plants will create offsets from their base, which you can break off to create new plants. If you do manage to coax bloom out of your plant, bear in mind that tillandsia will only bloom once at maturity and will then shuffle off its mortal coil.
The length of that shuffle is different for all species. I’ve got a T. xerographica that’s been happily in hospice for 6 months now.
So I’ve bought a couple, now what?
Resist the temptation to get out the hot glue gun. They may look like plastic, but tillandsia are living plants and sticking them onto a piece of bark with molten glue borders gently on sadism. Cultivate better karma and reach instead for a bit of florists wire. Tillandsia usually have a threadlike network of hold-fast roots at their bases. Use these and your wire to attach them to whatever takes your fancy – just remember that you’ll need to submerge them every 2-3 weeks, so attaching them to your mother’s antique wooden tray is only a good idea if you can remove them easily.
Recently, I brought back a cane of California grapevine from my sister’s winery and attached five of my prize T. brachycaulos to it. With all of its wonderful warts and depressions, the thick cane made it easy to attach the plants, and the horizontal nature of the arrangement begged to be the main feature on my dining room table for a few weeks. In the late spring it will head out to a patio table for the summer.
Go on, embrace your inner hipster.
Just be careful. A little tillandsia in a glass globe is the gateway drug to twenty-six much bigger tillandsia stuffed into a suitcase on an innocent trip back from Florida; or a grocery bag full of Wegmans specimens when you just ran out to get a chunk of good parmesan.
I speak from experience. They’re just plain fun; and when a plant makes you smile every time you look at it, that’s a pretty good excuse to embrace a trend, wouldn’t you say?
Reprinted with the kind permission of The Frederick News Post