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The Wonderful World of Tillandsias (Air Plants)

Tillandsia sp., also known as air plants are a genus of over 650 species in the Bromeliad family (Bromeliaceae) that make resilient houseplants and are fun to grow. Tillandsias are native to southern United States, Central America, Caribbean, and South America. These unique plants are found in a diverse range of habitats including temperate forests, deserts, swamps and tropical rain forests. Unlike most houseplants, most Tillandsias are epiphytes and grow on tree branches in their native habitat (including Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides), not in the soil. They will even germinate and grow on man-made structures like telephone wires. Many have very attractive blooms with colorful bracts and flowers, although they're attractive foliage plants when not flowering. Another unusual feature of Tillandsias is that, similar cacti and many succulents they photosynthesize through crassulacean acid metabolism (or CAM photosynthesis) where they close their stomata (air pores) during the day to preserve water and open them at night to fix carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Tillandsias are easy to cultivate if you follow a few simple rules. First, do not pot in soil or allow them to sit in water for extended periods of time, which can cause them to rot. You can mount them on almost anything - using glue, wire, or fishing line (don't use superglue or copper wire). Or you can simply place them on a windowsill by themselves. Most Tillandsias prefer bright, indirect light. Air plants that have silver/white/gray coloring when dry enjoy more direct sun. They grow well under artificial lights too! Although many Tillandsias are extremely drought tolerant, most will appreciate being misted a few times a week, and soaked in a bowl of room temperature water for 5-10 minutes every week or two; Tillandsias like to be wet frequently but not constantly. Species with thinner leaves are less drought tolerant than plants with thick leaves. Make sure your air plants dry out after a few hours. If you really want happy air plants, use rain water or spring water and add a small amount of water soluble fertilizer. Normal room temperature is perfect; frost will kill most Tillandsias.

I have been growing many of my Tillandsias for years and have some that I purchased here at Ginkgo Gardens seven or eight years ago happily thriving in my bathroom. We order them regularly and have a variety of species available, including the large and ever-popular Tillandsia xerographica. Their small size allows you to grow plants where you don't have room for a larger houseplant, like windowsills or small terrariums. I have mine growing in tiny glasses, sake cups, and a few are just sitting on my windowsills. Treat yourself and give our air plants a try. You won't regret it!

-Written by Ben Burkhardt (store and garden specialist at Ginkgo Gardens)

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