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Tantalizing Tillandsias

by Rebecca Sweet

There’s something about tillandsias that makes my heart sing.  Even just saying the word is fun.  Maybe its due to their seemingly endless array of colors, shapes and textures.  Maybe its because of their somewhat freaky appearance.  Or maybe its because they’re one of the easiest ways to make a really creative statement in your home.

Actually, for me it’s all of the above – plus the fact that I’m a sucker for anything that asks so little from me.  I’ve got enough in my life demanding my attention and the last thing I need is a fussy, high-maintenance houseplant!

Tillandsias (more commonly known as Air Plants) are actually in the bromeliad family, and those roots you see aren’t really roots at all, but rather ‘hooks’ that allow them to grip onto things. They get their nutrients and water from moisture in the air, not from soil in the ground.

While they don’t ask for much, they do have a few requirements.  One is that it stays above freezing – easy enough to do when they’re placed inside my home.

And while they appreciate bright light, definitely keep them out of direct sunlight.

Another is that they get a weekly misting of water.  In my dry California climate, I take it one step further and give them a really good soaking once every 10 days or so.  I just plunge them into a bowl of water and leave them for a few hours.  Every few months I’ll also feed them with a light dose of liquid fertilizer.

After their bath, I drain them upside down in my dish drainer.  They really don’t want to have their crowns wet or they’ll start to rot, so upside down drainage is essential.

Oh, and one more reason why they’re such great houseplants is the fact that most varieties will graciously give you their babies!

Similar to succulents, air plants will produce offshoots, or pups that you can gently pull off and reuse elsewhere.

Could it get any better?


Here’s a few of my favorites that I have sprinkled throughout my home.

This tallandsia xerigraphica is one of my all-time favorite big boys. It’s thick and leathery foliage gently swirls around forming a hefty (and satisfying to hold) clump of extra-terrestrial beauty.

For most of the year, its primary residence is in this shallow bowl filled with tumbled glass.  We found this glass many, many years ago in an abandoned dumping ground in the middle of a Lake Tahoe forest.  The broken glass sat there in big bucket in our garage for over 10 years until my husband finally figured out what to do with it.  He bought a rock tumbler – and the rest is history.Tillandsia xerigraphica - Mexico

Since lavender colored glass seems more like spring than it does Christmas, I usually end up moving this air plant to a mercury glass bowl once December arrives.

I like how the elegant bowl elevates (both literally and metaphorically) this unusual plant.Tillandsia abditaMy fireplace mantle is home to these tillandsias.  I love how the extreme shapes of their foliage complement the highly-textural containers.  It’s a pretty dynamic combination, don’t you think?

I bought these containers in Mexico a few years ago and immediately knew what I would do with them.  The shop owner must’ve told me a dozen times ‘you know they won’t hold water, right?’  Even though I reassured her that I understood what she was saying, she wasn’t convinced.These air plants have happily lived in my family room for several years.  I found this glass terrarium covered with dust and dirt on a ‘everything must go’ discount table (can you believe it?) and again, immediately knew what I would put in them.

I wasn’t sure if they’d be okay living enclosed like this, but clearly they are.

I like to use stones in different colors and sizes to help highlight each air plant’s unique qualities.Tillandsia tectorum In my office lives one of my favorite air plants of all – tallandsia tectorum.  When I first saw this pricey little gem sitting in the florist shop I thought it must be fake – flocked with the white stuff that covered our 1960′s Christmas trees.

When I was promised that this was, indeed, real I just had to have it.  It’s gorgeous, soft and furry, and part of me can’t help but treat it like a pet!

Since it looks a little like something you’d find deep in the ocean, I’ve placed it with my other favorite things to collect – sea shells. Don’t even get me started with my sea shell obsession.

Also in my office, are these sweet little glass containers filled with tiny, colorful glass and pebbles.  While in Los Angeles last summer, I bought them at Potted, and their small sizes are just perfect for my old, narrow windowsill.

And on the next windowsill over are a group of tiny little pottery crocks that I’ve had for decades.  I never knew what to do with them until my air plants started having babies.

Now they’re an ideal spot to create a tillandsia pyramid.Meet Lozano.

Not the air plant, but the little guy who lives inside.  My daughter found him at our local carwash (named – you guessed it – Lozano’s) and lo and behold here he is, watching over me as I do the nightly dishes.

I especially love this teardrop terrarium from Lila B. Design, which is one of my favorite floral design/goodies shop ever.  I’m particularly fond of the cool base that she sells, allowing it to rest securely on a counter (it’s not always easy finding a spot to hang these sorts of things).Lozano

I love the wary yet determined look on his face as he’s discovering new lands….

Oh wow.  I didn’t realize I have so many air plants in my home!  Oh well, at least I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing just how much fun you can have with these little easy going beauties.

And since its now clear to me that I have some sort of obsession with these plants, I’d love to know how any of you might display them in your home!





Candice Suter December 16, 2013 at 2:16 am

Great post on these cute little guys! You have given me some great ideas as to what to do with all of mine. I would love one of the big ones and your furry little ocean creature.! Thanks!

Rebecca Sweet December 16, 2013 at 8:28 am

Thanks, Candy! Here’s hoping Santa brings you a furry little tilly this year. ;)

lisa December 13, 2013 at 10:38 pm

love tillys – i have thousands of them…they do best outdoors (in san diego) enjoying the wind, sun part of the day, and water as needed…easiest plant in the world to care for….thanks for promoting!! -lisa

Rebecca Sweet December 14, 2013 at 8:05 am

Wow, Lisa, I bet your garden is beautiful with all those air plants in it – lucky you!! How often do you water them, and do you water by hand or have some sort of system for it?

Ally December 9, 2013 at 6:15 am

That’s an incredible display! I’ve been thinking of trying one of these plants, but you’ve really got me excited to get one. I found a small fish bowl the other day that I thought would make a good house for my first tillandsia. My house always seems so dark in the winter. What’s the least amount of light you think I could get by with?

Rebecca Sweet December 9, 2013 at 8:56 am

Hi Ally – the fish bowl sounds like the perfect container. I have a few tillandsias that don’t get as much light as I think they should, but they’re just fine. If your space is pretty dark, maybe you can rotate them to another part of the house every month or so? I’m sure they’d appreciate a new view, as well. ;)

Pam/Digging December 8, 2013 at 8:45 pm

Rebecca, you have convinced me to give tillandsias a try. I’ve been unmoved by the hanging and wall displays I’ve seen all over the place lately. But I LOVE your potted and glass case arrangements. By the way, I was totally inspired by your windowsill vignettes in your office when I visited last summer. I came home and cleared a desk away from my window so that I could create my own windowsill display. I enjoy it so much.

Rebecca Sweet December 9, 2013 at 9:02 am

Hi Pam – I’m with you in terms of not being a huge fan of some of the wall displays that I’ve seen everywhere. But when they’re tucked into something else, I love them. Especially that furry one! I wish you could hold it in your hands – I swear I can hear it softly purring! I’d love to see a photo of your own office windowsill display and am so glad mine inspired you. What a compliment!

michele December 7, 2013 at 4:42 pm

Always enjoy your articles & always learn a little something! This one’s special since I knew next to nothing about these endearing little creatures. I’m now determined to find some for my somewhat winter-desolate interior home landscape!! Just some questions: can I summer them outside ? Will they need partial sun? Do they require supplemental irrigation when outside or will rainfall do? (Zone 6) Thanks for such interesting & informative pieces!!

Rebecca Sweet December 7, 2013 at 9:07 pm

Hi Michelle – I’m so glad you’re enjoying my blog! The worst things for these little guys is to totally dry out for weeks at a time, which would happen if I left them in my garden here in California with no summer rain. They’d need to be watered at least once a week here. And yes, partial sun for sure. I’m not sure how much summer rain you get, so you might give it a try next summer and see how a few fare. I’d be curious to know about your results!

Jeanine December 7, 2013 at 1:09 pm

Are they susceptible to any bugs or fungi?

Rebecca Sweet December 7, 2013 at 9:08 pm

While I’m not an expert on tillandsias, Jeanine, I’ve never seen a single but on any of mine (and I’ve had them for years), nor have I seen any sort of fungus. When they die it’s usually a case of me completely forgetting to water them for weeks and weeks at a time, or the opposite – where I’ve overwatered one and it sort of falls apart one day from crown rot.

Linni Skinner December 7, 2013 at 10:03 am

Inspiring, you got me thinking now. My home is pretty much like a jungle this time of year as my deck plants come indoors, but there is ALWAYS room for more. Thanx for the wonderful ideas!!!

Rebecca Sweet December 7, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Oh yes, Linni – I’m sure you have room for at least one teeny, tiny little tillandsia! ;)

Kathy December 7, 2013 at 10:03 am

Beautiful Displays!

Rebecca Sweet December 7, 2013 at 9:09 pm

Thank you, Kathy!

Debra Lee Baldwin December 7, 2013 at 9:46 am

Fabulous photos, Rebecca! You’ve shown me tillandsias in a whole new light (literally). Previously I had thought of them as gray, spiderish plants. Interesting how the smaller of the containers you got in Mexico resembles a pineapple, and bromeliads are pineapples, so it’s like a horticultural play on words. (A play on plants?)

My inland Southern CA climate is even drier than yours, so I have mine hanging on a wire where the automatic irrigation (or rain, depending on the time of year) will spray them. I need to find them a happier home indoors. I’m pleased you didn’t show any in bloom. Your post is all about the shapes and textures of the leaves. The flowers are striking though, worthy of a later post all their own?

Rebecca Sweet December 7, 2013 at 9:59 am

Love your insight re: the pineapple pot and bromeliad. I love those pots so much and had to buy them the second I saw them sitting there on the shelf in the most fabulous, old, dark antique shop with a fine layer of dust covering everything. I should definitely try a few air plants in my garden if I can get irrigation to hit them ‘just right’. You’ve given me a new project to think about during the next few (cold) months. I didn’t show any in bloom because (confession time) I’m not a huge fan of their garish flowers. I love the subtle foliage colors and striking forms so when a day-glow purple and pink spike makes an appearance I’m generally not a fan. Some tillandsias, though, have beautiful pastel flowers but alas, mine aren’t those.

Judy Tillson December 7, 2013 at 8:09 am

Great article. I, too, love my tillandsias & here in San Diego, in addition to outside in various spots around the garden, they are also in my house (though now I’m going to have to look for “cooler” containers such as yours) LOL. Thanks for sharing your collection, they are great!

Rebecca Sweet December 7, 2013 at 9:53 am

Thanks, Judy. And lucky you to have them survive outdoors in your garden!

Kris P December 6, 2013 at 7:14 pm

Great ideas for displaying these! It made me think I need to pick up some Tillandsias of my own for my office space.

Rebecca Sweet December 7, 2013 at 9:53 am

Thanks Kris!

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