My beautiful new air plant – a Caput Medusae from the Air Plant Supply Company. Thanks Joanna!

Friday when I got home I found an unexpected package waiting for me, a surprise gift from my awesome friend Joanna. Opening the box, wrapped in tissue paper, I found five tiny little plants and no soil. She sent three different species of airplants, plants that can absorb their necessary nutrients from the air. All they need is water and sunshine. Very cool. Apparently, also very hip, because of quick web search yielded a ton of creative options on Etsy and elsewhere for how to display your dirt-free plants.

The popular plants are from the genus Tillandsia, which has more than 500 species growing around the world, but mostly in the tropics. They are part of the Bromeliad family of plants- a diverse group that includes both pineapples and spanish moss. In general, most bromeliads grow with their leaves in a rosette, a spiral arrangement from a central base, that often helps them store water at the base of their leaves. They also have scales on their leaves, called trichomes, that enable the leaves to absorb water in wet conditions and also close up to help reduce water loss during dry conditions.

Bromeliads can reproduce vegetatively, with new “plantlets” growing from offshoots of the motherplant, like baby spiderplants or a growing hens and chicks colony. (Neither of which are bromeliads, fyi, but very cool plants in their own rights) You can separate out the young plants, or let them continue to grow together. They have fantastically weird flowers – although many only bloom once. If you grow a colony, each of the plantlets will eventually flower.

One of the many cute ways people display their air plants. Photo by Cherus (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In the wild, Tillandsia are epiphytes. They live on trees, but they don’t act like parasites that suck nutrients from their host- they only use the tree as a supportive habitat, providing them good access to sunlight. At home, people get creative, mounting them to driftwood or dangling them in glass terrariums. You just have to water them- regular misting, a weekly rinse in the sink, or routine soaking, depending on the species. Many varieties for sale are pretty hardy, which no doubt plays into their popularity. Cute little plants that are hard to kill make great houseplants. I’m not sure what kind of home I’m going to give mine yet – creative interior design is not my strongest suit, so they might just hang in front of the kitchen window for now.

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