The name air plant is misleading; they need more than air to thrive. A balance of humidity, light, warmth, water, and food are the perfect factors to carry an air plant through every stage of its life.
Air plants have one mission – to reproduce. Whether grown from seed or pup, they spend the majority of their life waiting to flower. Tillandsias are monocarpic; they flower once in their lifetime. Once this occurs, the plant has reached maturity and can reproduce before slowly dying.
Air plants have an impressive growth cycle; grown and pollinated in the wild or cultivated indoors. They leave several miniature versions of themselves behind, ready to be nurtured.
What is an Air Plant?
Air plant is the commonly used name for Tillandsia, the largest genus of the Bromeliad (pineapple) family.
They are epiphytic plants; they don’t grow in soil and absorb necessary nutrients and moisture through their leaves.
In the wild, they use their small root structure to attach themselves to substrates including, trees, rocks, and cliff faces. They are not parasitic and drain nothing from their host.
There are more than 650-species of air plants native to humid regions of Mexico, Central, and Southern America.
How do Air Plants Grow
In the wild, an air plant’s growth cycle begins in one of two ways; either as a seed or as a tiny shoot attached to an adult plant.
After pollination (by bees, birds, moths, butterflies, or bats) an air plant forms a seed pod replacing the flower head. It can take anywhere from 3-months to – 2-years to reach full size, at which point it cracks to reveal multiple small hair-like structures. Each is an individual seed with a parachute enabling it to blow on the wind to a substrate to grow.
It is also possible to cultivate seeds for commercial growth without pollinators.
Plants are either self-compatible, where they transfer pollen from stamen to stigma, or self-incompatible. In this instance, pollen transfers from male to female sex organs within the plant before fertilization occurs and seeds grow.
Tillandsia growers also employ artificial methods of transferring pollen to ensure plentiful growth and create hybrid species.
Growing Tillandsia from seed is a long, drawn-out process. Depending on the species, an air plant can take up to 8-years to reach maturity.
Air plants not pollinated can still reproduce. It happens around the plant’s flowering phase when small off-shoots appear near the base of the plant.
Most species of Tillandsia have between 3 and 5 off-sets, commonly known as pups.
Left attached to the parent plant, over time, they grow in clusters forming clumps.
It is safe to remove them from the mother once they have reached a third of her size.
More about pups later.
There is no specific time for an air plant to enter this phase of its life cycle. It typically occurs when they are between 3 and 5 years old.
Blooming is the first indication that an air plant is healthy and ready to flower.
In most species, the uppermost leaves will blush into eye-catching shades of pink, peach, or red.
In their native habitat, blushing foliage attracts pollinators. Indoors, it adds an extra dimension to the plant and gives the owner an early warning that it may appreciate some fertilizer as flowers are imminent.
When the leaves have blushed, they progress to the next stage; flowering. In many species, a single inflorescence grows out from the heart of the plant; some grow multiple bracts. They are the stem from which the flowers will eventually appear.
Flowers differ between species by shape, color, form, and size. Many are tubular to offer stability in the wild and a safe place for insects to retrieve the pollen.
Air plant flowers are notoriously vibrant colors. Most are vivid shades of purple, red, pink, orange, and yellow.
Again, depending on the species, some plants have a single flower, others have several that grow in clusters. They might last for days, many last for weeks.
The King of the air plants, the xerographica, has a bloom that lasts up to a year.
Blooming and flowering are signs that Tillandsia has reached peak maturity. It is a bitter-sweet realization that the plant will stop growing and, from now on, is heading towards the end of life.
Air plants kept indoors practice asexual reproduction. Rather than grow from seed, mature plants bear small shoots around their base. These off-sets are called pups and appear around the time of flowering.
Most Tillandsia species have between 3 and 8 pups; each shoot grows into a replica of the parent plant over time.
Clusters of pups attached to the mother are safe to leave in situ while everything looks healthy. Air plants in hanging baskets with a cascading clump of pups are a wondrous sight.
The adult plant helps support the growth of the babies, sharing all of its absorbed nutrition and moisture. When it becomes too much and resources are exhausted, carefully remove the pups from the parent plant.
The adult fades and dies, although not necessarily immediately, it may take days or weeks.
Alternatively, removing the pups from the parent plant as soon as they reach a third of its size increases the adult’s life. Although it is preparing to die, it can focus all its energy on keeping itself alive, not on the pups. Mature Tillandsia can exist for 1-2 years in this way; however, they will never flower or reproduce again.
Nearing the End
It is sad to lose any plant, especially one that you have cared for over the years. In the case of air plants, the blow softens as each one leaves behind several pups for you to nurture in the same way.
Tillandsias are slow-growing; many species their the first 2-years to measure 1-inch, and more than 4 or 5 years to reach maturity.
Their life expectancy varies; depending on the species, growing conditions, and maintenance.
The growth cycle of an air plant typically lasts around 5-years but can extend longer in an ideal environment.
Tillandsias catch the eye during every single phase of their growth.