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Airplants with Paul

Martha Stewart Living Television
Like many botanicals, airplants (Tillandsia) are prized for their long-lasting, brightly hued flowers. But what distinguishes these bromeliads from most plants is their unusual ability to absorb nutrients through their leaves and thus to grow without soil. The more than four hundred perennial species the Tillandsia genus comprises are native to South America and the southern United States. Most varieties bloom for one to several months from late fall to spring, and some bear fragrant flowers that attract moths and butterflies; meanwhile their vivid, usually reddish color often appeals to hummingbirds. As members of the bromeliad family, airplants also bear a striking resemblance to that of a highly recognizable fruit: Compare the plant’s leaf cluster to that atop any pineapple, and you’ll see a spiky foliage arrangement common to the entire family.

The following are some of airplant expert Paul Isley’s favorite varieties, all of which are epiphytic, meaning that they don’t live in soil, but rather survive by clinging to other plants with their wiry roots. These roots also help to support the plants but do not play a role in obtaining moisture. Instead, the plants’ bodies function like large funnels, channeling all rain falling within a relatively large area to their bases and absorbing the moisture through their scales. According to Paul, airplants should receive bright but filtered light and should never be left in direct summer sun. In addition, good air circulation is essential, as well as nitrogen, which you can provide using products such as Epiphyte’s Delight (see sources). Paul also recommends misting every few days or immersing the entire plant in room-temperature water for about a half hour every week to ten days. Above all, remember that their silvery, reflective scales both help to keep them cool and absorb all their necessary moisture and nutrients. As such, these scales are essential to the plants’s survival, so be sure to handle them with care.

Tillandsia jaliscomonitcola

A characteristic flower blooms between the colorful bracts of this airplant.

T. bulbosa

This variety is notable for its slick, water-repellant foliage.

T. usneoides (Spanish moss)

Although most people are familiar with Spanish moss, few realize that it’s an airplant.

T. aeranthos

A favorite of hummingbirds, this variety blooms in brilliant shades of purple and red.

T. tectorum

This thin-leaved variety is covered fuzzy trichomes, or scales.

T. ‘Curly Slim’

A cross between T. intermedia and T. streptophylla, this cultivar is known for its exquisite shape.

T. tenuifolia ‘Amethyst’

As its name might suggest, this cultivar bears striking dark-purple leaves.

T. concolor

The foliage of this easy-to-grow variety turns deep red when in bloom.

Paul T. Isley III

Rainforest Flora Nursery

19121 Hawthorne Boulevard

Torrance, CA 90503

E-mail: orders@rainforestflora.com

Airplants

Epiphyte’s Delight

Rainforest Flora Nursery

Bromeliad Specialties

Homestead, Florida

In the Market

28th Street

New York, NY

Paul T. Isley III

“Tillandsia: The World’s Most Unusual Airplants” (Botanical Press, 1987; out of print)