Updated: Jul 5
Air plants, scientifically known as Tillandsia, are a genus of over 650 species made up of numerous ferns, evergreens, bromeliads, and orchids growing on tree trunks in tropical areas. Most are epiphytes, which translates as 'on a plant', and means just that, they live on other plants or hosts but they are not parasitic, rather just like to hang on. Some can even live on rocks, roofs, and telephone lines, and are called lithophytic. They are easy to care for and can add interesting, living elements to indoor and outdoor spaces in climates like Southern California's.
They are called air plants because their roots are exposed to air and there is no soil covering them. Their small roots are used to help them hold on like feet and do not absorb nutrients like regular roots. Instead air plants use trichomes, sponge like cells on their leaves that can rapidly absorb water and nutrients.
They are very abundant in the Amazon rainforest and are found in their native habitat across the Southern US, Mexico, Central and South America. Since they are easy to care for, people are now growing them all over the world.
A Diverse Genus
There are a multitude of traits making this a diverse genus. Air plants are usually either green or gray in color. The green species come from cool and low humidity climates and prefer the lower, shadier levels of the forest. The leaves are usually softer and do not like direct sun. The gray species like hotter, drier climates and can be found in the upper forests and these are the varieties that can even grow on rocks. Their leaves are usually sturdier and can take direct sun.
One of the flowering species come from the bromeliad family and offer beautiful shades of yellow orange, red, all the way to pink and purple, and multi-colored blooms which are bright to attract pollinators, essential for their survival. Common pollinators are hummingbirds, moths, and bats. The single bloom is a stalk of a paddle, funnel, or spiky shaped flower and leaves that does a great job collecting and holding water.
Air Plant Care
Air plants are so easy, but they do need a little care. Green plants need more watering and less sun than the gray varieties. Even though many say to just mist them with water once or twice a week, they also need a good soak upside down in water for at least 30 minutes, or even overnight, every three to four weeks to really thrive. If the leaves start to curl it's a sign that it needs more water. You can trim the roots back or off, they do not need them.
Temp wise they are easy too, and can be happy in temperatures ranging from 50 to 90 degrees fahrenheit! Good air circulation is important so avoid terrariums with small openings. Plants that are flowering are showing that they are happy and healthy.
Depending on the variety, many air plants can create a pup, a smaller version of itself, off to one side, which can be removed once it is about half the size of the mother plant and it will propagate into an adult.
Air plants can be put just about anywhere making them fun to decorate with, unlike plants needing a pot and dirt. Be creative and replanting is easy! Just move it!
All over sunny California you can encounter colorful bursts of Bougainvillea waving hello. Bougainvillea is a is a genus of thorny ornamental vines, bushes, and trees originally coming from South America. This striking plant is perfect for our climate and can bloom almost all year around. They are drought tolerant and actually bloom more with less water!
The blooms can vary from white, to pink, orange, red, deep red and purple. While white isn't as common for some reason, the other colors are quite common and can even come in two colored varieties, like pink and orange, and with foliage that also has two shades of green. The blooms are actually colored leaves, called bracts, and the tiny, flowering centers are the actual flowers.
Bougainvillea does well in climates 9b-11. If you want to check what zone you are in you can with the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. If you are near frost zones, they don't like to be too cold, so plant near buildings for more shelter. They need at least 6 hours of sun a day to be happy plants. Bougainvilleas are wonderfully drought tolerant once established and do better with less water, resulting in more blooms, yay!
The incredible versatility of Bougainvilleas are that they can grow to 25 feet in different directions! Many people train them over fences and arbors, but they will grow over almost anything! They don't latch on like some vines, so they do need support and training to guide them where you want them to grow.
There are dwarf varieties too if you do not want to have one grow so big. They do have thorns, so be careful when pruning. They also have delicate roots so care when transplanting is key, do not disturb roots too much if possible. Transplanting once established is not recommended.
The beautiful pop of color they give can really add a nice touch to a garden, house, or commercial space. One of the easiest landscape additions to consider especially with all the color choices!
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There are some incredible advancements in technology for the garden that can make life a whole lot easier, help your garden thrive, and save water and money.
Ken Lain, The Mountain Gardener, and guru of high tech gadgets, has these suggestions for helping in the garden. If anyone knows where to start with adding tech, it's him!
8 Tech Gadgets for Your Garden by Ken Lain was originally published in Talking Glass Magazine Spring 2021 Tech Edition.
Here are the links to some the companies mentioned or shown above:
GrowIt! Garden App: https://www.growitmobile.com/
Brinno Garden Cam: https://www.brinno.com/
Spruce Irrigation: https://spruceirrigation.com/
Vegibee Pollinator: https://vegibee.com/
Garden Plan Pro: http://www.gardenplanpro.com/
Netatmo Weather Station: https://www.netatmo.com/en-us/weather
Husqvarna Automower: https://www.husqvarna.com/us/products/robotic-lawn-mowers/
Happy high tech gardening!