How-To Grow Air Plants (Tillandsia spp.)

Tillandsias. What a bunch of curious plants. Commonly known as air plants due to their ability to hang about from trees without needing soil, they’ve been a staple of my backyard collection of weird and mysterious plants for many years.

They’re incredible – they grow from tree branches, rocks, even cacti in some of the harshest environments in the world and they hardly even need roots. They get all their nutrition from the air, hence the name. If you look closely at nearly any tillandsia you’ll see they’re covered in fine hairs, these do the job of catching moisture and other bits of goodness floating about.

For me, one of the greatest things about plants is the more you learn, the more you want to learn. Curiosity feeds curiosity. I find out lots of plant information on-line but I much prefer talking to people who REALLY know their stuff. In real life. So, recently, when we were in Brisbane, I caught up with Bruce Dunstan, a tillandsia tragic of the grandest scale. He showed me around his collection (it’s epic!) and told me all about growing tillandsias.

How long have you been collecting tillandsias for?  I’ve been collecting them since the late 80s. My partner came home with some from work one day because a co-worker knew I was into plants and she was getting rid of hers. She wanted them to go a good home.

What initially drew you to them? The first one that really took my fancy was a Tillandsia streptophylla at the Brisbane Botanic Garden. It was a grey bulb with curly silver leaves and an inflorescence of pink paddles that stood nearly 500mm tall. It looked like it came from Mars.

How many species do you have? I have too many to count! It must be somewhere between 200-300 different species and hybrids.

What sort of growing environments suit them best? They grow over a huge range – from sea level in the tropics to over 3000m up into the Andes Mountains. They grow on cacti in dry desert regions and also in the wettest rainforests in the world. Some prefer all day full sun while others always like a cool shady spot.

Getting to know your individual plant’s requirements is essential for good growth.

A general rule for starting with common species is morning sun till lunchtime. Provide them with a good watering a couple of times a week in spring to autumn and as much air movement as possible. The more breeze the better.”

What are your three top tips for keeping them alive and thriving? Air movement and the right sun/shade aspect are both essential. Apply liquid fertilizer during the warmer months to speed growth and encourage flowering and, in turn, multiplication.

Can you grow them indoors? Tillandsias are happiest outside. Indoors they’ll need bright light, air movement and a regular watering regime. Without either of one of these three they’ll be temporary indoor plants only.

Can you please name your top 5 toughest Tills for beginners? Tillandsia bergeri, Tillandsia ionantha, Tillandsia paleacea, Tillandsia schiediana, Tillandsia disticha.

What is the most surprising thing you can tell us about Tillandsias? Henry Ford used to stuff the seats of his Model T Fords with Tillandsia usneoides or old mans’ beard. It grows from the Carolinas in the USA right down through the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and on into Southern South America as far as Southern Chile.

If you were a tillandsia, what species would you be? There are so many to choose from I could happily be a different one every day of the year.