What is Tillandsia?

Tillandsias, commonly known as Airplants, are herbaceous (do not have woody stems) flowering plants belonging to the Bromeliad family [Bromeliaceae]. Famous members of this plant family include the pineapple [Ananas comosa] and spanish moss [Tillandsia usneoides].

The bromeliad family is divided into 3 sub-famililies, namely Bromelioideae, Pitcairnioideae and Tillandsioideae. Tillandsias belong to the sub-family Tillandsioideae, the distinguishing characteristic between Tillandsioideae and the other 2 sub-family is that all species of Tillandsioideae have entire (smooth-edge leaves) leaf margins, they do not have spines (tooth-edge leaves) on the edge of their leaves.

The genus Tillandsia is the largest in the Bromeliad family consisting of over 550 species and new species are continually added with each new discovery. It is fascinating that different species of Tillandsias, although  in the same genus, can look completely different and have such diverse forms and shapes. 

Tillandsias are native (grow naturally) to Central & South America as well as southern parts of the United States. They do not need soil to grow and can be found growing on trees, shrubs, cacti and rocks, as such they can be classified as epiphytic (growing on other plants but do not 'steal' water & nutrients from the host) or epipetric (growing on rocks) plants.

Leaves and roots

Tillandsias have highly developed foliar hairs or scales called trichomes on their leaves, the trichomes help the plants absorb water and nutrients. For some species, the trichomes grow so densely that it gives the plants a whitish or grayish look. The roots for most Tillandsias are for anchorage, attaching the plant firmly to its host plant or object. The roots are not necessary for growth of the plant and can be trimmed off if deemed unsightly, but when roots grow, it indicates that the growing conditions are ideal for the plants.

Flowers, seeds and pups

Tillandsias are flowering plants, most will flower once in their lifetime and they stop growing once the flowering cycle starts. The flowering cycle may last from 2 weeks to a year depending on species. The flowers come in different hues of purple, red, pink, yellow, orange and even green! Some species even have fragrant flowers! The bracts protecting the flowers before they bloom can also be very colorful and the colors may turn more vibrant if the plant is given more light during the flowering cycle.

If the flowers are pollinated when in bloom, seed pods may develop. When the seed pod ripens, it will split open revealing tiny hairy seeds inside, these seeds are dispersed by wind. Tillandsias grown from seeds will take many years to mature. Seed production is one way of reproduction, vegetative production is another way to get new plants.

Vegetative production can occur before, during or after the flowering cycle. Usually, little pups (baby plants) will develop at the base of the parent plant. Dependent on species, these pups can take a year or more to mature, they can be separated from the parent plant when they are at least half the size of the parent or they can also be left alone to grow into a nice little clump of plants. The parent plant will eventually dry and die off, sometimes after a few months, other times they can live to 'see' a few more generations offspring before dying.

Tillandsia ionantha var. maxima flower

Tillandsia seed pods

Seed pods split open, releasing 'furry' seeds

Seed germinates & grow into a plant

Tillandsia ionantha 'Rubra' with 3 pups

Tillandsia caput-medusae with 2 pups


Growing Tillandsias

Tillandsias are unique-looking, easy-to-grow plants that need minimal care. All they need is : light, water and air circulation. They are hardy plants that can adapt to a wide range of environmental conditions. Since every environment is different, the plants will need some time to get use it, once acclimatised to the new environment, they will do well and grow with little attention!

Have fun growing Tillandsias!!! :)