CULTURE CORNER: AIR PLANTS (TILLANDSIA) AND OTHER BROMELIACEAE
BROMELIADS are native to Central and South America. The family consists of over 2000 species, and more are still being discovered. The diversity of Bromeliads ranges from the pineapple to the “Spanish Moss” or “Old man’s beard” we have all seen in pictures of the Florida everglades, hanging in the trees. Countless hybrids have been produced from these species and the possibilities are endless.
Bromeliads are hardy, easy to grow and survive the neglect imposed upon them by the accelerated pace of modern living. Greatly adaptable, they grow under artificial, air conditioned atmospheres and tolerate abnormal light and moisture situations. They are ideal companion plants to most orchids as they both favour the same conditions for growing ..
The Bromeliad family is broken into about 30 different sub-families called genera and some of the more well known of these are as follows:
Aechmeas could be described as stately in size and form. Their leaves are often strongly patterned, with flower bracts that usually produce berries that last for months. Some are quite hardy and will take full sun although others require semi-shade to full shade. Sizes vary from quite small to huge.
Although their flower is not long lasting, it is orchid-like and quite beautiful. The plants are mainly tubular in shape and are very decorative and worthwhile. They prefer good light.
Cryptanthus collecting is fast becoming recognised as a hobby in itself, particularly where space is limited, and a very rewarding hobby at that. These colourful and fascinating little plants, commonly called “earth stars”, are the one of the few genera of true terrestrials in the Bromeliad family (apart from Orthophytums and similar plants). Grow them indoors or out. The light level is important to their colour development; too much and they will bleach and too little and they go dark.
Possibly some of the most beautiful Bromeliads are the Guzmanias. With often beautifully coloured and patterned leaves and long lasting flower bracts, sometimes many months, they make ideal indoor plants. They often have delicate foliage and should be grown in a sheltered, semi-shaded position.
Of all the Bromeliad genera, Neo’s as a whole are the most colourful. They do not have a significant flower but are in demand more for their brilliantly coloured leaves. Their form is generally rosette and their size varies from about 10cm. to a metre or more. Neo’s need bright light to colour well but may burn in full sun.
Nidulariums are probably the most under-used of all the Bromeliad genera. They make excellent indoor plants or can add spectacular and long-lasting colour and contrast to a garden. In looks, they are almost a combination of Neos and Guzmanias having mainly green to purple leaves and a coloured central flower rosette. They look their best in semi-shade.
Tillandsias are the most fascinating of all the Bromeliads. They are completely ephiphytic (air growing) and will grow almost anywhere. Under normal garden conditions they will grow without additional watering or feeding although these will encourage extra growth.
They vary greatly in growth and flowering habit and so are difficult to describe. Some are large, some small. some grey, some fuzzy, others smooth and some have beautifully perfumed flowers – they are all beautiful. They can be glued with most glues (NOT SILICONE ) or tied to most rough surfaces until the roots take hold.
Vrieseas are a worthwhile addition to any garden or greenhouse as well as being an ideal indoor plant. Some vrieseas have magnificent leaf colour and marking, whereas othere may be more plain with soft green or purple leaves but they usually make up by bearing a striking sword like flower bracts which lasts for months. They prefer shady conditions.
POTTING Most Bromeliads, except for a few terrestrials, are either epiphytic or semi-epiphytic and can be tree mounted or potted. A Cymbidium orchid mix is most commonly recommended but they seem to do well in any medium provided it is very open and drains well. Pine barks are the basis for most mixes. The terrestrials (especially Cryptanthus) prefer a heavier mix e.g. a fern type mix, which will remain moist. Most Tillandsias need to be mounted on wood, rock, etc. but there are a few varieties that will do better if potted in a free draining open mix.
WATERING Normal garden watering is fine. So long as their cups contain some water they will survive. Whether this is from weekly or more frequent watering or from normal rainfall does not really matter. It is nearly impossible to over water as the cups will simply overflow.
FERTILISING Bromeliads require very little fertilising. Some varieties are able to take more feeding than others but over fertilising plants such as Neoregelias will result in long strappy leaves (compact shape is usually better) and loss of colour. A pinch of slow release fertiliser when first potting these plants is usually sufficient. Genera such as Cryptanthus and Vrieseas require more feeding.
PESTS Probably the only pests you will have to worry about with your Broms are various types of scale, the worst of which is “fly speck scale” which can be seen as small black spots over the leaves. These scales can be controlled with insecticides specifically for scale pests. Scales will not be as much of a problem in plants which are given good light and air movement and where periodic inspection and maintenance is carried out. NEVER USE WHITE OIL SPRAYS.
PROPAGATION ……is usually by the removal of offsets which are often called “pups” which can be cut or broken from the mother plant when they are approximately one third to half the size of the mother which will often then produce more pups before deteriorating and dying over a period of months of even a year or so. Pups can be stood together on top of or slightly into potting mix in a box until they root and then they can be potted.
LIGHT It is important to find the right spot for the right Brom as the conditions required to get the best results vary from variety to variety. One of the major factors in this is light levels. Plants such as Neos, Ananas, Tillandsias, etc. require good light whereas Vrieseas, Guzmanias, Canistrums and Nidulariums will look good grown in shady areas. Most plants will adapt well to 50% or 70% shade cloth under which there are usually areas that are more shady or more light. It is usually better to keep your plants in pots and move them around until you find a position where you feel they respond best. Cryptanthus require semi -shade to look their best.
TREE MOUNTING Many Bromeliads can be tree mounted, the stoloniferous varieties such as miniature Neos being the most suitable. They can be fixed to trees by tying or nailing or tucked in a suitable fork or crevice. When tree mounting Bromeliads, it is not necessary to cover the root area but it is important that they remain upright to hold water. (except for Tillandsias which can hang in any direction)
GENERAL INFORMATION AND GROWING TIPS
TILLANDSIAS are probably the most fascinating genus of the Bromeliad family. There are now over 500 species and new varieties are still being discovered. Hybrids are also becoming more common. In nature they range from Florida and Mexico through all of the Central and South American countries, from deserts to rainforests, from freezing to tropical conditions. They vary in size from 1 cm or so to plants in excess of 4 m. Habitat altitude ranges from sea level to elevations of 3000 m. Most Tillandsias are totally epiphytic or “air growing” and are able to extract all moisture and nutrient required to live through a system of trichomes or “fine hairs” on their leaves which gives many of them a silver/grey velvety look. As a general rule, the more silvery they look, the dryer the climate of their native habitat. This silvery surface also reflects heat and keeps the plant cooler in the hot desert areas. The forest dwellers tend to be green or red. Tillandsias vary greatly in size, shape, leaf formation, colour combinations and general adaptability in their native habitat. Some have the most beautiful perfumes. Some have dispensed with a root system and use their leaves to hold onto branches so they do not fall to the forest floor where they might rot away. However, most do have relatively small root systems which attach the plants to various mounting materials such as cacti, bark or branches, rock, sand or leaf litter on the forest floor. They do not use their roots to feed and are not parasites. These plants are very slow growing so patience is required. Single plants can be very attractive but they are at their best when they have formed into larger clumps or colonies. Clumps in flower can be quite spectacular. After flowering, mother plants will make new plants in the form of suckers called “pups” or “offsets”. Remember that growth of a clump is slowest in the early stages.
GROWING Tillandsias require very little attention. Provided they have reasonable conditions they will grow on happily without any fuss whatsoever. However, if a few simple rules are followed, you will get the best out of your plants
CLIMATE Most Tillandsias will adapt to a wide climatic range
GROWING CONDITIONS Tillandsias require light, water, and good air movement to grow well. If these requirements are provided, they can be grown in many and varied situations from open gardens to indoors, but I recommend outdoor growing and taking the plants indoors for short periods. Let’s look at these one by one.
LIGHT As a rule, the silver/grey varieties will tolerate full sun whereas the green plants will require some shade. Most of my plants grow well under 50% shade cloth with the more shade loving plants placed in the shadier positions. Some people use 70% shade cloth with good results but my philosophy is “you can always add shade but it’s difficult to add light”. Plants indoors will do better in a well lit area than a dark corner.
WATER Watering requirements will vary according to individual situations, i.e. indoor or outdoor growing, winter or summer, humidity etc. I believe in under watering rather than over watering because plants can be damaged by over watering whereas they will normally show signs of under watering before damage is done. My plants get a reasonable watering once or twice a week summer and winter and I find this adequate. If plants are not receiving enough water they will show signs of dehydration or dryness. Tillandsias – bergeri and aeranthos are good indicators as they usually let you know first by the leaves pinching into a trough shape. In very severe cases of dehydration, plants can be soaked in a bucket of water for several hours without harming them. Indoor plants may need regular misting with an atomiser (maybe once a day) as the atmosphere inside tends to be dryer particularly if air-conditioned. A thorough watering or soaking once a week is also a good idea. Although regular watering is desirable, plants will not usually come to any harm if unattended for several weeks or even longer.
AIR MOVEMENT These plants respond to a nice breezy situation.
MOUNTING Tillandsias can be mounted on a number of different materials. Cork, timber, driftwood (soak well to remove any salt), grape wood are the most successful. Rock, unglazed pottery, shells, etc. can also be used but the plants are not usually as happy on these surfaces. Generally accepted methods of fixing include gluing or tying to hold the plant in position until the roots take. I use hot glue from a glue gun but most other glues (EXCEPT SILICONE) are used. Contact glues are quite good if you smear some glue on the mount and some on the plant, allow to dry for a few minutes and press the plant in position. I mount most plants facing downward as I find that most of them will turn up towards the light and if the glue lets go after the roots have taken, the plant will hang like a hook instead of falling away from the mount. Never allow copper or zinc to come into contact with the plants as it may harm or kill them. I find that some varieties do better if potted or at least mounted in an upright position. Some of these would be cyanea, lindenii, most of the fasciculata types, flabellata and most of the green Vriesea types. Pot in a well drained open mix.
FERTILIZING Some people apply foliar fertilizer to their plants, some once a week, others once a month but I find that it does not make much difference. If you wish to fertilize, use a fertilizer such as Phostrogen as Tillandsias need their nitrogen in ammonia form, not urea form. Use foliar fertilizers at half the recommended strength.
REMOVAL OF PUPS Pups can be removed from the parent plant if you wish when they are about one third the size of the parent. Some varieties grow their pups proud of the parent and are easy to remove but others send their pups up between the leaf -axils and have to be removed carefully with a knife. If the pups are removed, the parent plant will produce more. The number of pups can vary from one to a dozen or more
PESTS AND DISEASES Pests and diseases are not usually a problem. Occasionally they may attract mealy bugs to an odd plant. These plants can be dipped or sprayed with a suitable insecticide.(NEVER USE WHITE OIL OR COPPER SPRAYS.)
FLOWERING Pups will normally flower within a year from purchase. Seedling plants may take substantially longer, sometimes many years. Sometimes individual plants can skip a year but once a clump is established, you should have a reliable flowering each year. Each variety has its’ own flowering season, so, with a reasonable collection of Tillandsias, you will have something flowering all year. Flowers can last from a few days to many months, depending on the variety. If you have one that should have flowered but doesn’t want to, moving the plant or placing it in a bag with an apple may produce -results. There are about 20 or 30 varieties that are beautifully perfumed. I trust this information has given you a little more understanding of these marvellous plants so that you may receive more pleasure from them.
Wilson, Louis – “Bromeliads for Modern Living” (1977) Merchants Publishing Company
BROMAGIC and the magical world of BROMELIADS (CD)
Rauh, Werner – “The BROMELIAD Lexicon” (1990) Blandford , London, ISBN 0- 947444-42-4
Andy Harrison – A personal guide to Tillandsia Introduction Caring for Tillandsia in South Africa
SOME MORE ABOUT TILLANDSIA:
(With thanks to Andy Harrison from tillandsia.co.za)
INTRODUCTION TO TILLANDSIAS
Tillandsias or “Air Plants” are an unusual group of plants, as they take in nutrients through their leaves and not their roots. As a result, they are epiphytic (growing on trees or cacti) or saxicolous (growing on rocks) and do not need soil to grow in (although a few species prefer to be potted rather than left hanging!)
They are plants of the ‘New World’, occurring from the south of the USA, through Mexico and Central America, and into South America. In the wild, they are found in a range of habitats from coastal desert, through forests and high up into more mountainous areas. They also an tolerate a range of temperatures, although they are not, as a rule, frost tolerant.
Air Plants are part of the Bromeliad (Bromeliaceae) Family and belong to the Genus Tillandsia. There are well over 500 species of Tillandsia that naturally occur, and a growing number of hybrids and cultivars which have been man made.
There are a number of features which seem to make the plants attractive to collectors:Firstly the plants themselves are quite variable in form.Many are relatively small and require little space. Not requiring soil, they can be mounted on wood, sea shells, rocks, in glass terraniums etc to form quite artistic and abstract pieces for display.They are relatively easy to maintain and can be neglected (within reason).The flowers form on an inflorescence which is often quite unique and colourful in its own right.
Tillandsias propagate through two methods:
As mentioned above, they do flower and it is the flowering that I certainly look forward to. The flowers do turn to seed. Some species self-pollinate whilst others are pollinated by hummingbirds, moths, butterflies, bees, and even bats. Growing tillandsias from seed is a long and patient process.Tillandsias also propagate by producing baby tillandsias (called pups), which develop on the plant after flowering. The pups will develop into new plants, genetically identical to the parent plant. Pups can be separated from the parent plant when they reach a manageable size, or left on the parent plant to form bigger clumps. The original parent plant will eventually die back after pupping.
Plant taxonomy is the field of science that deals with the description, identification, nomenclature and classification of plants. I mention this because there are rules and recommendations concerning the naming of plants, (refer to www.iapt-taxon.org which will lead you to the so-called Melbourne code 2011). That said, the naming of Tillandsias is far from clear.
Classification of life forms is broken down into a hierarchical system devised by a Swedish scientist called Carl Linnaeus in the 18th Century. His classification starts with Kingdom (eg Plant Kingdom) and works down through Phylum, Class and Order and then Family (Tillandsias are part of the Bromeliad family), and then lastly Genus and Species.
Most animals and plants are formally known by the two names making up Genus and Species. For example, as modern people we are the only living representative of the genus Homo. We also have the specific name of sapiens to distinguish ourselves from our now extinct predecessors such as Homo neaderthalensis or Homo habilis. So we are known as Homo sapiens.
The plants we are interested in belong to the Genus Tillandsia. There are over 600 species of tillandsias. For example, there is Tillandsia ionantha, which has different characteristics from say, Tillandsia pruinosa. By the way, because we are talking about Tillandsias on this website, I have used the common practice of abbreviating the generic name, eg T. pruinosa.
It should be said here that the strict definition of a species implies that reproduction between members of different species can’t biologically happen. However this definition does not seem to strictly apply in biology and even less so in Tillandsias. When a new tillandsia plant is discovered and described, the arguments will follow as to whether this new plant is a new species, or a distinct variety of an existing species, or just part of natural variation of an existing species. And here’s the rub, not everyone will agree. So the naming of tillandsias can be confusing and I have several times bought differently named plants, only to find that they are actually the same beast!.
Worse still, some nurseries are not always strict with their naming conventions, so there are some tillandsias on the market that have incorrect names. So “caveat emptor” – let the buyer, beware.
It is my humble opinon that the ‘splitters’ seem to hold fort over the ‘lumpers’ and there are many Tillandsia species which may not deserve to be recognised as distinct species, but in fact are.
There can be variations within a species which can be recognised, either formally or informally. These variations may come about as natural selection reacts to local differences in geography, climate, elevation etc. There are a number of varieties (often abbreviated to ‘var.’ or even ‘v.’) of T. ionantha, of which T. ionantha v vanhyningii and T. ionantha v stricta. Some variations are not formally named like T. disticha Minor and T. disticha Major.
NOTES ON TILLANDSIA SUB-GENUS
Although not included in the two word Linnean name, the various tillandsia species can be grouped under one of 7 sub-genus’, which reflect some commonality. The distinctions are quite technical and I have decided to exclude them from the list hereunder. I do have these distinctions together with a list of species that fall under each sub-genus and would be more than happy to pass this one for anyone who’s interested. See the ‘Contact Me’ section of the website.
For interest’s sake, these sub-genus are:
Allardtia: Type species: T. guatemalensis.
This is the second largest group with almost 200 member species
Anoplophytum: Type species: T Stricta
This is the third largest sub-species with almost 90 members
Diaphoranthema: Type species: T. recurvata.
This sub-species has 33 members, which are further divided into 6 groups named after a prominent member of each group.
Phytarrhiza: Type species: T duratii
This sub-genus comproses 34 species which are further split into 8 groupsn named as roman numerals from I to XIII.
Pseudalcantares: Type species: T. viridiflora
I can only find four species that make up this group.
Tillandsia: Type species: T. utriculata
This sub-species is the most numerous, nd contains at least 265 species, plus an additional 40 odd that have been transferred from the Vriesea genus.
Racinae (formerly Pseudocatopsis): Type species: T ropolocarpa
Only 2 members.
Evolution is a continuing process. There will be variations within a species due to natural differences in geography, climate, elevation etc. resulting in plants of the same species having differing variations, which are not distinctive enough to warrant classification as a different species. For example, T. ionantha v vanhyningii and T. ionantha v stricta. Some variations are not formally named like T. disticha Minor and T. disticha Major.
Hybrids occur naturally (which to me, ought to imply that the parents were of the same species anyway) or can be induced artificially by using the pollen of one plant to fertilise the stigma of the other. Hybrids so derived, may be named using the following convention, eg. Tillandsia Silver Streak (T. funckiana X T.albida). Note the mixture of italics and normal type.
I’m no expert, but my understanding is that a Cultivar is a hybrid which is capable of sexual reproduction true to form, in other words, the sibling is like the parent hybrid. (Although I was planning to collect only naturally occurring species, I have acquired a few Cultivars through my initial ignorance!!).
HOW TO CARE FOR YOUR TILLANDSIAS
Remember though that this is largely based on my experience of growing Tillandsias in the Free State Province of South Africa, which is at altitude and has extremes of weather (see ‘About this Site’ elsewhere on this website)
Due to these extremes, I have battled to grow several Tillandsia species, noteably; T araujei, T gardneri, T geminiflora, T stricta, T arenicola and T. kirchoffiana. Others do not flower properly and I suspect my local temperatures are too extreme.
On the ‘Gallery’ page, I have uploaded photographs of some of my plants. With each photograph is some commentary about the plant and at the end of the commentary, the conditions under which I try to keep the plants. This is annotated, for example, as “CARE: H; X: ?”. The first letter is about Light Conditions (High, Medium or Low). The second letter is about Watering (Xeric, Sub-mesic or Mesic). The third is for Humidity (High, Medium or Low). A question mark means that I don’t know! Note that I have searched the Web for clues on how to care for the each Tillandsia species.
As a general rule, the darker green, softer leafed Tillandsias, (which also seem to be the ones that will benefit from being potted) tend to prefer shade rather than direct sunlight. The stiffer greyer leaved variety prefer bright light although that doesn’t necessarily mean full sun, and especially in the summer here.
I have read that Tillandsias can survive on light levels of 20 000 Lux, but will thrive at levels between 30 000 and 40 000 Lux. I wasn’t sure what that meant, so I bought a light meter. My first measurement were taken at 12h45 on 4th September on a bright clear cloudless early spring day and gave a reading of 100 000 Lux. By comparison, under shade netting in my veggie garden, I recorded 60 000 Lux, implying that my shade netting was 40%.
So I have used additional shade netting to try and get the following Light regimes.
40 000 Lux = High
30 000 Lux = Medium
20 000 Lux = Low.
Tillandsias take in nutrients through their leaves.They are frequently described as eiher Xeric (meaning they prefer dry conditions) or Mesic (wetter conditions) or an inbetween Sub-mesic.
In my local climate, I spray them in the mornings, on average every second or third day. I try not to use tap water, which is often heavily chlorinated, but use filtered (by reverse osmosis) water that the family uses for drinking. Fresh rain water is best of course, but the winters in Welkom are largely dry, and summer rainfall can be heavy and with hail, so natural soaking is a rare event. Some specimens benefit by a long bath on occasions when the leaves of some species start to curl.
Some specimens are liable to rot, so ensure that the Tillies dry out during the day.
Some of the lower light Tillandsias, prefer a humid environment. As my home town is quite dry, especially in the colder winter months, I have added a few small pots of water attached to the frames which hopefully will make the local environment a bit moister. My plants are also in a veggie garden which gets watered daily, so the humidity levels will be slightly above the norm anyway.
Tillandsias, being sub-tropical beasties, are quite comfortble in high temperatures, but, apart from Tillandsia usneioides, are not tolerant to cold temperatures, especially frost. In the summer, most of my tillandsias are mounted outside under shade cloth. Some of the potted tillies are kept in the greenhouse, and I use a combination of an extractor fan or an evaporative cooler, or fine mist sprays, to keep the temperature down below 30 degrees C. In the winter, I have them in a greenhouse with a heater if the temperature drops below 5 degrees C at night.
As a final comment, the Tillandsia that are truly epiphytic will be found in trees under some form of shade canopy. If your Tillandsias are recorded as found in wet tropical areas, then the level of shade will be higher than those described at altitude in dry forests, where light levels will by definition be higher. Tillandsias that are saxicolous and thus found on rocks and on cliff faces will presumably tolerate still higher levels of light. However, some desert species for example, can still require good moisture as in their natural habitat may have coastal mists.
I’m not exactly a handiman, but I have constructed a series of frames made from 20mm x 20mm ‘par’ (planed all round) pine, which I have painted with some marine varnish to attempt some weather-proofing. The frame is around 0.9 m x 0.9 m (only because I could purchase the stuff in 1.8 m lengths), but it seems that anything larger would be a hassle man-handling. I reinforced the frame at the corners with some metal brackets. Attached to the frame, I have pinned (using fencing staples) some rigid plastic fence netting with a grid of about 32mm.
The frames themselves can be hung on something more permanent. I have some rectangular tubular bar mounted horizontally for the frames to hang on and inside my greenhouse, they are hung on horizontally mounted plastic drain pipes.
I hang the tillandsias on the plastic netting. The first lot of Tillandsias I had were individually mounted on off-cuts of old vine wood. They were fixed t the wood using a glue (such as “Fix All” – I have read that you shouldn’t use silicon glues for this). The glue is not ideal and as a back-up, I have tied them on with string. Around the top of the vine, I wrap a piece of wire with a hook, and use the hook to hang the mounted tillandsia on a wooden frame (see picture).
Some of my later tillandsias have been hung using the green plastic coated floral wire, and hung on the netting.
Be careful with wire, as I understand that copper wire is a no-no for tillandsias. The wire I use is galvanised steel binding wire.
With thanks to Andy Harrison from tillandsia.co.za
DISCLAIMER – Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the information contained herein is factually correct, the author can take no responsibility for unexpected outcomes.
Our Pinterest Boards – Fall in love with the Tillandsia and some of the other fascinating members of the Bromeliaceae.
There are a lot of very interesting and helpful videos on the web. Here are just a few to get you started:
EASY TO GROW AIR PLANTS / My Air Plant Tillandsia Collection care tips and tricks for happy Plants -Brads Greenhouse & Gardening