Garden Variety: Air plants are easy to grow, ideal for anyone

Air plants are more popular than ever right now, at least judging by their wide availability in garden centers and almost any place that sells tropical plants. They are small, tidy, unique and easy to grow indoors, making them ideal for anyone.

Keeping them alive only takes a little attention to their light and water needs.

Air plants (Tillandsia) get their name from their ability to survive without soil. Some species lack roots, while others have small, specialized root systems used only for support. They get the water and nutrients they need for survival from precipitation and the air. Their native habitat is warm climates in the southern U.S. and in Central and South America.

Air plants are often displayed in glass globes or on shallow trays, rocks, pieces of wood and other similar items.

Air plants are somewhat difficult to describe. The top of a pineapple is probably the closest example to the shape and structure of some species of air plants, although pineapples are much larger than any commonly cultivated air plant.

Air plant species that are most readily available tend to be about 3 to 4 inches long by 2 to 3 inches wide. Leaves are stiff, strappy and vary in shape, texture, color and attachment to the stem. There are about 650 species of air plants overall.

Place air plants in bright, filtered light. This is usually associated with an east-, south- or west-facing window. Avoid direct sunlight.

Water air plants by misting, rinsing or submerging them as needed. Most resources suggest watering air plants once or twice a week. The frequency will depend on the humidity level in the location where they are growing and may need to be adjusted seasonally.

To mist plants, squirt water on them with a misting bottle. To rinse them, hold them under a running faucet.

To submerge plants, put them in a container of water for 20 to 30 minutes. With all methods, use tepid water and shake any excess from the plant before returning it to its display.

If plants start to look dry, increase the frequency of watering. If they develop soft spots on the leaves or start to show any signs of decay, decrease the frequency of watering.

Fertilization is unnecessary in most cases. If desired, use a fertilizer labeled as being especially for air plants or bromeliads.

The flowers of air plants are also quite variable and interesting. Unfortunately, plants only bloom once in their lifetime. They can cross-pollinate and produce seeds, but this would require more than one plant of the same species blooming at the same time.

Air plants also reproduce by producing offsets or miniature plants at their base. Often, a plant will produce a few offsets around the same time that a bloom is produced or shortly after the bloom fades. Offsets can be removed when they are about half the size of the parent plant.

— Jennifer Smith works in regulatory horticulture and has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.


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