Exactly what is a tillandsia?

The genus Tillandsia contains approximately 650 species of evergreen, perennial flowering plants in the Bromeliad family. They're native to the forests, mountains and deserts of Northern Mexico, the Southeastern United States, Central America, and the Caribbean south to Argentina.

The stiff, tapered leaves are noticeably wider at the base. Due to its impressive rosette, Tillandsia xerographica is popular with florists and designers because they look so nice in many applications. It requires less water than many other varieties, but needs to dry quickly after watering. The leaves are covered with specialized cells called trichomes that are capable of quickly absorbing water. Misting is usually recommended; however, I prefer to give mine a weekly float in the sink.

Flowers that can last for months are produced on a densely-branched, yellowish-green bract growing up to 15″ tall. Flower color is greatly intensified when the plant receives full sun or at least abundant light in a warm environment.

tillandsia on a weathered wood fence

An example of biodiversity

Commonly called air plants because of their natural propensity to cling wherever conditions permit, such as telephone wires, tree branches, polls, and even bare rocks, the seeds have a silky parachute similar to those of dandelion seeds that facilitates their spread. Most Tillandsia species are epiphytes which means they grow on another plant. Some are aerophytes that have a minimal root system and grow on shifting desert soil.

Tillandsias exhibit many physiological and structural differences that make this genus an excellent example of diversity. With native habitats that vary from epiphytic to saxicolous, they have made adaptations such as root systems designed to anchor to other plants or substrates and modified trichomes for water and nutrient intake. The majority of bromeliads grow as funnel bromelia. Their leaves are close together in rosettes that form a funnel for collecting water.

preparing a container for an air plant

Leaf rosettes, a common characteristic of Tillandsia species, function as a source for collecting both water and nutrients. Blooms are typically bright, vibrant colors, with either the bloom or inflorescence produced on a stalk. The color varies between red, yellow, purple and pink, which helps attract pollinators. These color variations can also occur on the foliage during the blooming season.

Common pollinators include bees, moths, hummingbirds and bats. Most often, air plants self-pollinate when a grain of pollen from a plant's stamen is transferred to the same plant's stigma.

They establish naturally in diverse environments. The green species are mainly terrestrial and live mostly in the shade or in lower levels of forests. In contrast, almost all gray species live in areas with little precipitation and high humidity. They prefer full sun and can be found in the upper areas of woods, on rocks, or occasionally on the ground. Many of the gray species are epiphytes.

blooming tillandsia

Growing Tillandsias

Tillandsias, like other Bromeliads, multiply by pollination and seed formation. They take many years to flower. The life of an individual plant ends with fruiting after seeds form and the mother plant dies.

Generally, varieties with thick leaves are found in areas prone to drought. Tillandsias are low-maintenance house plants. Due to their minimal root system and other adaptations, they generally need infrequent watering, no more than four times a week. Allow the plant to completely dry before watering again.

The amount of light required depends on the species. Air plants with silver dusting and stiff foliage like the Tillandsia xerographica require strong sunlight. Outside in summer, they prefer light shade during the hottest hours.

Plants are commonly displayed mounted, in a terrarium, or simply placed in seashells or shallow containers as decorative pieces. Mist them frequently or soak briefly in non-calcareous water. After soaking, shake out remaining water and turn upside down to drain.

basket of tillandsias for sale

Ecology

Species of Tillandsia photosynthesize by way of a CAM cycle. They close their stomata during the day to prevent water loss and open them at night to release oxygen and fix carbon dioxide. Because they are epiphytes, this allows them to preserve water. With no functional root system, Tillandsia xerographica also absorbs nutrients from debris and dust in the air.

Any root system of Tillandsias acts as a fragile stabilizing scaffold to grip the surface they're growing on. As soon as they have been soaked with water, the green assimilation tissue becomes visible again ("greened"). The plant can now absorb more light. As the plant dries, it turns white. Because of this, plants without roots can absorb fog droplets as well as rainwater to provide their moisture needs.

Tillandsia xerographica is winter-hardy in USDA zones 9 to 11. Their ideal temperature range is 60°–80°F (16°-27° C). When growing a Tillandsia xerographica indoors, give it a south-facing exposure in order to receive the most bright light throughout the day.

tillandsia on a table

(top and bottom photos are my T. xerographica)