Love plants but hate dirt?
There’s a whimsical burst of greenery that has your name on it.
A native of rain forests, deserts and swamps, the air plant — officially, Tillandsia (tuh-LAND-zee-uh) — doesn’t need soil. These plants absorb all their water and nutrients through their leaves, and they use roots only to attach themselves to surfaces that offer good sun exposure.
You might find air plants perched in trees in the Everglades or tucked into rocky cliffs in South America. And, increasingly, you can see them in American plant shops and garden centers.
“They’ve gotten really popular over the last five years,” says Zenaida Sengo, author of the new book “Air Plants: The Curious World of Tillandsias” (Timber Press). “A couple of years ago you knew about them if you were plant savvy or style savvy, and now it’s like, whoa! Everybody knows about them.”
Sengo’s book is a great introduction. She has sections on care, origins and display, as well as hundreds of color photos to illustrate design and decorating projects to immerse yourself in the wonders of these deceptively simple showstoppers. She is well-versed in her subject. An artist and horticulturist in San Francisco, Sengo works with tillandsias at the highly regarded garden shop Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco.
Air plants can be placed on trays, displayed in your favorite bowls, even glued to wood. Their roots are for attachment only, Sengo says, and they grow just fine when properly attached with a nontoxic waterproof glue like Tilly Tacker.
But air plants can’t live on air — a popular misconception — and if their demands are simple, they’re non-negotiable.
“Lighting is key. First and foremost, do you have a spot that’s bright enough?” Sengo says.
Bright, and indirect: Tillandsias need as much bright, indirect light as possible. She recommends east-facing windows, where morning sun hits the plants for a few hours. West-facing windows are good, too, as long as the direct sun hits late in the day when it’s not as strong.
The plants also need to be watered regularly; many growers use a combination of regular misting and occasional soaking. And air plants generally need fertilizer, which is added to water and absorbed through the leaves during spraying or soaking.
Choosing an air plant is part of the fun: Relatives of the pineapple, air plants can look like bursts of grass, miniature aloe vera plants and fluffy mosses. They flower, too, but not frequently, so Sengo suggests choosing the leaves and structure you like best; that’s what you’re going to be looking at most of the time.
Varieties frequently seen in stores, like Tillandsia stricta and T. aeranthos, can be good choices for beginners, Sengo says. Aeranthos has graceful hot pink and purple blooms, and stricta has sturdy pinkish blooms.
“Those two types grow relatively quickly, and they’re easy to get to bloom,” Sengo says.
Air plants send out offspring, or “pups,” after flowering, and most species can grow into large spherical clusters of plants.
Designing and crafting with air plants can be as simple as setting a plant in your favorite bowl or as elaborate as fashioning a wall design with multiple plants and a frame.
In one striking — and relatively simple — project, Sengo glues fluffy mounds of tillandsia to a piece of weathered wood that’s then mounted on the wall. The glue doesn’t hurt the plants, which continue to grow as long as they get enough sunlight and water.
Sengo shows air plants displayed in bullhorns, baskets, fronds and even a hartebeest skull. There are air plants attached to the wall with steel prongs; air plants grouped together in hanging gardens; air plants suspended from the ceiling like mistletoe.
Whatever you do with your air plants, remember that less is often more, Sengo says.
“I usually suggest that you stick to, if not a single type (of air plant), a few types, and you group them together with like colors and textures so your eye can differentiate,” Sengo says. “It’s much more pleasing to the eye that way, especially at first glance.”
3 great ideas
From “Air Plants: The Curious World of Tillandsias”
Add rocks: Horticulturist Zenaida Sengo loves to pair air plants with rocks; smooth white pebbles can give a grassy air plant a seaside look.
Use your treasures: Since air plants don’t need soil, they’re easy to pair with bowls or trays you’ve already collected.
Twist some wire: A little stainless-steel wire can affix living air plants to leafless branches; arrange in a large vase.
Where to buy
Check your local garden center, and even some big-box stores, for air plants. Here are a few websites we found that specialize in them:
The Air Plant Shop: airplantshop.com
Air Plant Supply Co.: airplantsupplyco.com
Air Plant Design Studio: air-plants.com