By: Sallie Lee
Question: My family and friends long ago learned they will receive plants from me to mark special occasions, holidays, and the like. Having gifted these gardeners by choice or by accident with a variety of trees, shrubs, bulbs, and more over the years, this time I’m drawing a blank. The thought occurred that something different, that wouldn’t grow too large, wouldn’t have a lot of pest problems, and come to think of it, would do OK indoors, is appealing. Any ideas that fit these criteria?
Answer: Oh gardeners do love a challenge, either in choosing a plant to “gift” or one to grow! As it happens, I’ve been checking out a cute little plant recently introduced to me that has possibilities. Shocking as it may be to some, a favorite Tillandsia is grown in the southeast – Spanish moss, or Tillandsia usneoides. Also called ‘beard lichen’, the plant is not a moss but an epiphytic flowering plant we associate with Live oaks.
OK, we’ve made that connection, but Live oaks don’t grow very well in central and north AL. But as houseplants, ‘Tillies’ or Tillandsias do just fine. So for gift giving to your plant pals this year, consider one of these funky, colorful plants.
In order to keep Tillandsias (also known as “air plants”) happy, keep in mind the three biggies to growing them: bright light (not direct sun however), good air circulation (really good), and water (they like humidity – think where Live oaks grow).
Since Tillandsia roots are primarily used to attach themselves to trees or rocks, moisture and nutrients are absorbed through small scales on leaves called trichomes. Offering a wide range of sizes, shapes, textures, and bloom colors, some undergo dramatic color changes prior to blooming. A few are fragrant, so by choosing a variety of Tillies, which can be mounted to wildly varying mounting mediums, your fiends can get really creative with these plants!
Multiple Tillandsias at BBG Gift Shop courtesy Sallie Lee
While the plant itself is reason enough to grow them, we like blooms! Color, size, shape, fragrance – like bees and butterflies, we’re bloom-oriented! Tillandsia blooms include bright yellow, orange, red, pink, blue, purple and white, with varying shades of all colors. Many of these plants bloom from later winter through midsummer – how’s that for a long bloom cycle?! While Tillies can be forced to bloom, some varieties don’t respond well to the necessary treatment and could produce less than desired results. But Tillandsias do reproduce either by offset (pups) or seed. Music to the gardener’s ear, that means more Tillies without additional purchases! Some can have as many as 8 “pups” – how is that for a “litter”? Separate offsets from the mother plant when about half the parent plant’s size, expect them to mature in about a year.
The most common mistakes with growing Tillandsias include not watering often enough, having them in too little light, and putting them in soil. If your giftee addresses these conditions, you may be giving another Tillie on request this time next year!
Tillandsia in bloom Courtesty http://www.airplant.com/
Garden Talk is written by Sallie Lee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. This column includes research based information from land-grant universities around the country, including Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities. Email questions to Sallie at email@example.com or call 205-879-6964 x11. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. The Alabama Cooperative Extension System (Alabama A&M University and Auburn University), is an equal opportunity educator and employer. Everyone is welcome!