What the Sam Hill is a Tillandsia? We get this question a lot. In short they are well known as air plants. They are in the Bromeliad or Bromeliaceae family and have roughly 540 natural species. Since growing in popularity there are another 200 or so hybrids that hobbiest have created. The most famous and delicious Bromeliad is the Pineapple. While we don’t recommend eating your air plants it is good to know they come from a great family.
Tillandsia have adapted to live in a variety of challenging climates around the Americas. You will find these amazingly hardy plants in the southern parts of the United States, Mexico, Central America and South America. With very specific evolutionary adaptations these plants can live in jungles, cloud forests, deserts and mountain highlands. The many different climates Tillandsia can live in makes for a large and diverse plant family that attracts plant collectors and hobbyists all over the world!
Plant shape and size is directly affected by the specific climates in which they live. Wet climates with abundant and consistent rainfall produces plants with thinner leaves. Deserts that are prone to drought or long periods of dry hot weather have naturally selected thicker leaved plants that are better at storing water like a camel. These plants also have developed involuted or curled leaves that help to protect it from dehydration. Microscopic white hairs called trichomes that collect water and act as sunscreen are common on these desert plants. Cloud forest-based plants also have trichomes that help in catching clouds or moisture for their use.
Why don’t they live planted in soil? They have adapted to rely on their leaves instead of their roots to absorb their nutrients and moisture. Epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants, rocks and structures and don’t need soil to live. Epiphytes are not parasites though. They do not take nutrients or moisture from their host. The internal structure and anatomy of Tillandsia have adapted to survive on varied hosts both alive and not. Their leaves are able to pull moisture from the air more efficiently while some have developed a camel-like ability to store water and survive in areas prone to drought. Being up in trees or on rocky cliffs protects these plants from damage done by foraging animals, flooding or erosion on the ground. Not that a monkey or bird couldn’t do some damage, but Tillandsia chose to take their chances up in the air and off the ground.
Carolus Linnaeus, a leading scientist from the 1700’s coined the term Tillandsia after the Swedish born Dr. Elias Tillandz, a well known botanist and physician. Linnaeus was at the forefront of European botany and animal science. His life’s work inspired much of the modern day science that helped us understand the Tillandsia genus. These amazing plants are still not fully understood and the work of Linnaeus continues through modern day botanist and enthusiasts.
Whether you like to research each species and understand how amazingly unique they are on a molecular level or if you just love to have air plants around the house, Tillandsia are certainly a family of plants that bring joy and wonder to any greenhouse or home.