What is Tillandsia?

J.M. Densing
J.M. Densing
Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

Tillandsia is a genus of plants that are unique because they do not need to be planted in soil. This plant actually absorbs water and nutrients through its leaves. The roots are used mainly to attach to other plants, rocks or objects. Tillandsia are also known as air plants, ball moss, and Spanish moss. They are native plants to North and South America in warm climates, and are also popular houseplants due to unique qualities and relative ease of care.

There are more than 550 different species, and they grow in a variety of habitats such as deserts, mountains, and forests, depending on the individual species. They can take many different shapes, from long trailing mosses to rounded masses of thick succulent leaves that look like spiky balls. The leaves often appear to have a silvery coating, shape varies between thick or thin, and curly, twisted, or straight. Many varieties have colorful flowers as well.

The common thread connecting the varied tillandsia species is that they are all epiphytes, which means that they do not grow in soil but attach to other plants or objects. They use roots to attach to other plants, but do not harm them. As houseplants they can be attached to almost anything, some common choices are pieces of wood, shells, pottery, and stones. They are usually mounted to an object by gluing in place, after a while the roots will attach themselves to the object as well.

Since tillandsia don't use roots to absorb nutrients and water, the plant relies on its leaves instead. They do this through structures called trichomes that are small scale-like outgrowths on the surface o the leaf. The trichomes are responsible for giving many varieties a silvery look.

Because the absorption of water and nutrients occurs through the leaves, the most common method of watering houseplants is drenching the whole plant with water, usually in the sink or with a hose. Plants usually need to be watered two to four times a week, and the leaves may also be misted between waterings if humidity levels are very low. To prevent rot, the plants should be allowed to dry completely before the next watering. They can be fertilized about once a month. Tillandsia love lots of fresh circulating air, and they need plenty of sunlight, but don't require much special care to thrive.

Tillandsia usually reproduce by sending out offshoots, or tiny plants, also known as pups. Many adult plants can send out several pups at once, often between the leaves or from its base. The pups should be left attached to the mother plant until they are about half the size of the adult plant, then they can be detached and mounted separately. They should fully mature in about a year.

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