What is Tillandsia Ionantha Rubra? Air Plant Species Explained

Air plant enthusiasts are often looking for unusual varieties to add a splash of color to a display.

There are more than 650 types of Tillandsia – the genus name for air plants. One of the more popular and common species is Ionantha; they have several sub-species. Rubra is one of the rarest; they are tiny, soft, and grow in a fascinating rosette form.

What are Air Plants

Air plants leaves are covered in a series of hair-like cells called trichomes. They absorb moisture, nutrients, and light from the atmosphere to aid healthy growth.

They are epiphytes; the root system is only to anchor to an object when growing wild. They are not parasitic; they don’t drain anything from the host surface, be that a tree, rock, cacti, or fence.

Tillandsia don’t need soil to grow; in fact, it is detrimental to their health. They grow independently, needing no pot or container.

Tillandsia Ionantha Rubra Classification

Tillandsia Ionantha Rubra

Family: Bromeliaceae

Genus: Tillandsia

Species: Tillandsia Ionantha

Cultivar: Rubra

About the Ionantha Species (Sky Plants)

Ionantha is just one species of the 650+ types of Tillandsia, the largest and most diverse genus of Bromeliad.

Ionanthas are native to Mexico, southern and central America, much of the Caribbean, and Meso-America. They thrive in many environments and climates with lots of heat and humidity.

They are most prolific in deserts, mountains, and forest environments.

Ionanthas are evergreen, perennial plants regularly used in terrariums and displays due to their small forms and attractive coloring.

They are hardy plants that suit novice Tillandsia growers. They enjoy copious amounts of indirect sunlight and need only moderate watering.

Their attractive leaves are linear, growing upwards before arching over and curling back towards the stem. They have a unique, spiky appearance in shades of soft greens and grey.

The leaves blush stunning shades of pink and soft reds when well cared for; for this reason, they are often known as Blushing Bride plants. Most Ionantha flower spectacular tubular flowers of vivid purple hues, with bright yellow stamens appearing ready for pollination.

The name Ionantha comes from the Greek language; Ion = violet, anthos = flower.

The plants are often named after their native regions, such as Ionantha Guatemala and Ionantha Mexican.

Ionantha Rubra

Rubra is a cultivar of the Ionantha species, native to South America and Mexico. They are one of the smaller varieties, rarely exceeding 3-inches tall and wide.

Just like all other Ionantha, they are resilient, herbaceous air plants.

Appearance

They grow in an open rosette style, thick silver-green leaves that curve outwards; they are elongated, spiky, and eye-catching.

The leaves are semi-succulent, feeling rubbery at their base. The stem is thick and grows between 4-9cm long.

While in the earlier growth stages, Rubra’s foliage remains green, with yellow and silver hues. As they mature, and with lots of light exposure, the uppermost leaves begin to blush. Gradually they turn incredible shades of pink, red, often with a bluish tint.

It signifies the good health of the plant and that it is preparing to flower. Blooming leads to reproduction.

Unlike other Tillandsia varieties, vivid leaf coloring remains long after the blooming season.

The Inflorescence (Flowerhead)

The inflorescence of an Ionantha Rubra is the deepest violet shade; it grows from the center of the rosette on narrow white bracts.

The tubular flower is very prominent, especially when the bright yellow stamen appears at its head.

The flower head grows to 2-inches in length; each Rubra plant often has multiple blooms, 2 or 3 flowers.

As with all air plants, it blooms just once in its lifetime, signifying the beginning of the reproduction phase.

Reproduction

Tillandsia cultivators grow the plants from seed, waiting 2-3 years before each one reaches full maturity.

The most popular reproduction method is called offset division.

Around the blooming season, air plants grow shoots at their base. These offsets are called ‘pups’ and require no pollination.

air plant pup
Air plant Pups

Pups should be left attached to the mother plant until they reach at least a third of their size. It is then safe to remove them.

In the case of Ionantha Rubra, we suggest leaving the pups for as long as the parent can sustain them.

They grow in cascading clusters known as ‘clumps’. These miniature versions of the adult plant make an incredible hanging display, explaining much of their popularity.

How to Propagate a Rubra

When the parent plant show signs of wilting, it is time to remove the pups. They absorb some nutrients from their host when young.

  1. Carefully remove the plant from the terrarium or surface.
  2. Gently soak it tip down for a couple of hours; Rain or pond water is best.
  3. Spread the leaves to identify any pups.
  4. Nip the buds as close to their root as possible; soak them for an hour.
  5. Reattach the mature plant to live out its days.
  6. Thoroughly dry the pups, place them in a warm, well-lit position to grow.

For the first month of their life, pups need a light mist of water daily, taking care not to over-water. Decrease this for the second month; twice a week is sufficient unless conditions are exceptionally arid.

From then on, leave the plant away from direct sunlight to prevent scorching, and watch it grow.

Monthly treatment with a diluted, specialist Tillandsia fertilizer encourages growth and helps leaves enter their blushing phase.

Be patient; it could take a year or more.

Caring for an Ionantha Rubra

Air plants are renowned for being low maintenance and easy to care for. But, this doesn’t mean they thrive on neglect; they require a specific environment and a healthy watering regime to flourish and bloom.

Watering

Rubra is a relatively small and delicate plant, so watering regularly but in moderation is the key.

Mist the plant twice a week, ensuring the spray hits the leaves and doesn’t enter the rosette; 3-4 times weekly in very dry weather. Never be tempted to overwater, and always leave them somewhere well-aerated to dry.

misting air plants

Some gardeners feel the Rubra is too delicate for a weekly deep soak. If it isn’t in flower, we think half an hour once a week, face down in the best water for air plants is beneficial.

However, root rot is the enemy of Tillandsia; they must have 2-4 hours to thoroughly dry, before returning to their display.

During the blooming season, the Rubra will need extra water. Either repeatedly dunk the plant in a bowl of water 2-3 times a week, or hold the base beneath running water for a few minutes to quench its thirst.

A useful tip for misting rosette-style air plants is to hold them upside down as you spray. The trichomes on the leaves absorb the moisture without the threat of it settling in the plant’s center.

Lighting

Ionanthas love lots of bright but indirect sunlight. They are best positioned within a few feet of a window, but not on the ledge, and nowhere shaded. The sun scorches the leaves, something the plant doesn’t always recover.

Rubras flourish in artificial light, especially fluorescent. They are the perfect plant to brighten up basements, offices, and spaces with little natural light.

Temperature

Ionantha Rubras can grow outdoors but are not frost-hardy. Bring them inside should the temperature drop below 32°F for prolonged periods.

Indoors, the Rubra thrives best in temperatures between 64-80°F.

They enjoy moderate to high humidity, so enjoy kitchen and bathroom environments.

Remember, after watering, they should be moved to a place with good air circulation to dry out.

Feeding

Ionanthas absorb all necessary nutrients from the atmosphere. Once a month, give them a helping hand with a small dose spray of specialist Tillandsia fertilizer.

The plant appreciates this most during the blooming season; it is wasted during the winter phase when the plant rests.

Other Ionantha Varieties

There are multiple types of Ionantha clones, cultivars, and hybrids, created in the wild by the cross-pollination of species.

A few of the more popular varieties include;

Tillandsia Ionantha Guatemala – They have wider, rounder leaves than the Rubra, with a pointier tip.

T.I. Fuego – They enjoy lots of sunlight that turns their foliage fiery red. They are prolific clumpers that form stunning decorations.

T.I. Scaposa – Unique, tall, narrow plants with pink-tipped foliage. Native to the forests of Guatemala, they need less light but more water than other varieties of Ionantha.

T.I Vanhyringii – One of the rarer cultivars, with thick leaves like those of a succulent. The leaves grow in a star pattern from a branch-like stem. Pups grow prolifically, cascading down the stem.

Final Thoughts

Rubra is one of the most favored air plant species, probably due to its low maintenance and spectacular coloring for much of its life.

These small plants grow as per their habitat; they love as much indirect sunlight as you can give them, and they aren’t as thirsty as other species.

They are heavily laden with leaves that are amazing to watch change color as the plant matures.

Best of all, Tillandsia Ionantha Rubra is a prolific reproducer. Each plant creates several pups to add to an ever-growing collection.

Anthony Marsh
Anthony Marsh is a writer with deep roots in the soil of western New Hampshire. His first experiences with gardening were at the age of 10 where his parents allowed him to plant and cultivate his first vegetable garden. Twenty years later he’s continued with his passion for gardening and actively rescues abandoned plant life.