Many plants thrive without soil

Courtesy of Laxmi Natarajan
Tillandsias are plants that take their nutrients through the air, not via dirt like regular plants.

The sight of a delicate green plant with a colorful bloom in a small hanging terrarium always catches my guests’ eyes - it’s a guaranteed conversation starter. On closer look, however, they notice that there is no soil in the terrarium and wonder whether the plants are living or artificial. It is an introduction for most to the genus Tillandsia.

Linnaeus established the genus Tillandsia in the 1700s and named it after Swedish botanist Elias Tillands.

Tillandsias take their nutrients through their leaves and need only air, water and light - no soil - hence they are also known as Air Plants. Epiphytes - plants that grow on other plants (such as trees) nonparasitically, or sometimes on some other object - derive their moisture and nutrients from the atmosphere, rain and sometimes the debris accumulating around them. Air Plants are epiphytes. Found in Central and South America, Mexico, the southern U.S. and the tropics, they are fascinating, low-maintenance plants that bloom with bright flowers. Members of the Bromeliad family, they usually sprout little pups on the side as the mother plant dies down.

Indoor and outdoor displays

Tillandsias are very popular for mounting because of their fantastic form and texture. They are small and grow slowly, making them easy to manage and maintain.

They can be attached to anything: a branch or twig of grape or Manzanita, a slab of wood, a coconut shell or driftwood. Choose a mount that will not disintegrate under the existing conditions.

Attach the plant with waterproof adhesives such as Liquid Nails, Goop or silicone sealer, available in hardware and home stores. The plant must be held in place until the glue hardens. A hot glue gun is the fastest and safest method if the plant is attached a few seconds after the glue has cooled. Sheet or Sphagnum Moss pressed around the plant and into the glue will present a more natural appearance. Nylon monofilament - fishing line - that is nearly invisible can also secure the plants.

The roots of these plants are tough, weather resistant and can be used to attach it to the substrate. Do not attach the plant by its leaves. When the leaves die, the plant will detach.

If the plant has no roots, tie it or wire it rather than fasten it with an adhesive. If the area around the base is damp but not wet, most Tillandsias will produce roots. Constant wetness at the base of the plant can cause rot.

Care of Tillandsias

Plants can be sprayed or misted daily, but the easiest way to water is to plunge the plant once a week into a container of water to which a Bromeliad Fertilizer 17-8-22 is added and let it soak five minutes to an hour or so. Drain or shake off excess water after removing the plant from its bath. Water trapped in the plant can cause rot.

Tillandsias must dry completely between waterings - they cannot breathe through a wet leaf surface.

When the mother plant blooms and dies, Tillandsia collections grow for decades because of the propagation of the pups. The plants continue to provide gardening gratification indoors and out.

Laxmi Natarajan, a member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, is a garden and interiorscape designer at Bagicha Garden & Flora Design. For more information, call 703-9756 or visit n

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