Air plants: how to grow and care for them

PUBLISHED: 09:32 24 January 2017 | UPDATED: 18:59 06 February 2017

Suspended Tillandsias

Suspended Tillandsias

© Anne Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo

Air plants, or Tillys, are quirky yet easy to grow. Philippa Pearson visits one of the country’s biggest specialists at an historic nursery in Willian

Tillandsia (Thinkstock)Tillandsia (Thinkstock)

‘There are more than 400 different varieties of Tillys,’ says Mark Smith of Pioneer Nursery in the village of Willian, next door to Letchworth. ‘They are very special and adaptable plants that anyone can grow.’

The name ‘Tillys’ is an affectionate term for a plant group called Tillandsias, more commonly known as air plants because they are able to grow without soil, instead drawing moisture and nutrients from the air through specially-adapted leaves.

Mark and his wife Amanda took over the Baldock Lane nursery site three years ago after many years of working in the horticultural industry. ‘We were looking to try something different,’ explains Mark, ‘and at that time the opportunity presented itself to take on an established air-plant business, then based in Hampshire, and the nursery in Letchworth became available as well, so we combined the two.’

The original and aptly-named Pioneer Nursery was set up at Willian in the 1900s to provide plants for the world’s first garden city at Letchworth. Sir Ebenezer Howard, the English founder of the garden city movement, had a vision that all the houses in Letchworth should have generous gardens and the nursery provided plants for these.

Mark and Amanda continue the horticultural tradition at Pioneer with a good range of perennials, shrubs, trees, hedging and plants for seasonal interest. Alongside these, the range of air plants is inspiring. They can be grown in a wide range of decorative features and containers and, as they grow without soil, you don’t even need a garden. They therefore make perfect houseplants that are easy to grow and care for and although not frost hardy, displays can be put outside from late spring to autumn.

Tillandsias originate from deserts, forests and mountain regions of southern parts of the United States, Mexico and Central and South America. They are part of the Bromeliad genus and are very adaptable, tolerating a wide range of climate conditions. Once established in new surroundings, they will flourish and thrive with beautiful flowers, another remarkable feature of these plants.

You can be very creative with how you use and style air plants. They look great in little glass terrariums which can be hung around the house or make living pictures for a contemporary art feature. If you are new to air plants, Mark is on hand to give you lots of help and advice on how to grow them and tips for creating your own displays. The nursery also sells all the accessories and sundries to make your own striking living work of art – uses include ‘green walls’ and framed displays hung on the wall, or choose from the selection of ready-made displays.

For beginners, Mark suggests a good trio of air plants which combine colour, texture and different shapes for an eye-catching arrangement:

Ionantha – A graceful plant with slivery green leaves forming clusters, some turning red at flowering time. Violet flowers form in the centre of the plant. It’s ideal for windowsills and terrariums.

Caput medusa – The twisty leaves make this a very attractive plant and it is fairly hardy. Flowers are blue and it prefers sunny conditions with moderate humidity.

Brachycaulos multiflora – Has lots of foliage. As it grows, it opens up with leaves bending slightly. The leaves are green, colouring red in strong sun at flowering time, while its flowers are blue. It prefers a bright, sunny position with moderate humidity.

‘Just remember,’ says Mark ‘the key factors for Tillys are an equal balance of light, water and air circulation.’

How to look after air plants

Watering & feeding

Watering is very important and the amount depends on temperature, light and air movement, But as a rule of thumb, spray two to three times a week, more frequently during summer or dry conditions. Use rainwater, not tap water. Feed the plants with a diluted liquid fertiliser misted on leaves once a week in spring and summer.

Where to site

Air plants like warmth but not direct sunlight and are happy outdoors during the right conditions in spring, summer and early autumn. Plants will be fine in many areas of the house as long as light levels and air circulation are good, the temperature is not below 8˚C and they are kept moist.

Plant care

Remove any dead, diseased or dying foliage throughout the year and be careful not to let water sit at the base of the plant as this could cause it to rot. Plants will produce offsets, called pups, which can be removed when half the size of their mother plant and then used in other displays.

Useful website:

Visit Pioneer Nursery

Pioneer Nursery, Baldock Lane, Willian SG6 2AE. 01462 675858.

The nursery is open Monday to Friday 9.30am-4.30pm and Saturdays 9am-1pm.

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