Tillandsia: The Allure of Air Plants for Floral Design,
written by Rizaniño “Riz” Reyes of RHR Horticulture
Air plants or Tillandsia in floral design are becoming very popular for many good reasons. This article will discuss the many fine qualities of air plants and what makes them so valuable and worth having in the shop or studio, an explanation of their native habitats and understanding how they grow in the wild, a sampling of some of the most common and most popular species for design work, and just a few basic mechanics so you can quickly begin using them.
The fact that the Tillandsia is a living plant requiring no soil makes it a novelty item that continually mesmerizes anyone who sees them. In the retail setting, they’re a product that (when cared for properly) can sit happily in a shop at room temperature and last much longer than any bucket of cut stems in a cooler. And because they require no soil, ones creativity is seemingly endless simply tucking them in every nook and cranny in your home, shop, studio and even in your next bride’s wedding bouquet!
To truly master how to use Tillandsia in floral design, you have to have an idea of how air plants grow naturally in the wild. If a trip to the mountains and rainforests of Central and South America isn’t quite within your budget, there are plenty of images online that can help. Pay attention to the growth habit and the natural direction each leaf tip is turning towards. Look at the other elements that exist close by or next to the plant and see if any sort of interaction is taking place and note the position in which it is growing. Then keep an eye out for the variation and seasonality of color some species take on, especially during bloom; it’s all these subtle nuances that dictate how they can be integrated into our work.
In nature, they have fine roots that simply cling to a surface: whether it’s a rock on a cliff or the bark of a tree, these roots will cling on for support without harming the host. Tillandsia capture almost all of their water and nutrients from the air. To replicate this in the studio, there are two basic artificial methods in which Tillandsia will attach to an object: Glue and wire.
Small rosettes of Tillandsia are easily glued in place on a branch using a hot glue gun or a flora adhesive. To give a more natural appearance once set in place, the addition of bark, lichen or moss around the point of connection is an easy and effective way of making it look as if that branch was cut with the air plant already growing on it. Large plants are best wired in place and the gauge of wire will depend on the size of the plant and how heavy. Wire is carefully looped just above the 1st or 2nd row of leaves from the base to conceal it as much as possible and then taped to a slim stake for use in arrangements or bouquets or wired onto a branch, post, or wreath.
The foliage itself, when used individually, is very useful and effective in floral design. Carefully removed from the plant and a wired wood pick attached to the base adds an elegant texture, line and an overall sophistication to a composition that’s not commonly seen.
Tillandsias have really come a long way from little spiky air-plants hot glue-gunned on a piece of seashell attached to a refrigerator magnet. You’d rarely see them available and if you did, the selection was poor and just a few years ago, no one really knew what to do with them. Their alien-like forms, spiky leaves and mythical names made them intriguing, but also intimidating at the same time. They were “collector’s plants”, right up there with orchids before you found them at Home Depot and Trader Joes, and their cultural requirements seemed impossible to follow for the general consumer. But now, thanks to designers and stylists such as Susie Nadler at Flora Grubb in San Francisco, and a growing interest in longer lasting, textural arrangements that can continue to live and grow, air plants (along with the ever popular succulents) seemed to be made for one another being key elements in wild and rustic designs and if utilized correctly, they can also evoke romance, boldness, delicacy, and whimsy.
Now it’s time to explore some of the more common species popular amongst designers. Now, you shouldn’t limit yourself to just these few species as there’s so many to select from including numerous hybrids between the species.
Tillandsia ionantha – the most common and readily available and are small 1”-3” plants. Some have a wonderful red coloration during bloom.
Tillandsia xerographica – the largest and most popular for floral work due to its sheer size ranging from 4” seedlings to monsterous rosettes over 12” across. The individual leaves are also highly sought after.
Tillandsia brachyocaulos – 3-6” across a glossy medium green often turning red, wonderful line and curvature that’s fairly uniform and gives somewhat of a pinwheel effect.
Tillandsia stricta – Green foliage with hints of silver trichomes and a fat pink inflorescence when in bloom with pale violet flowers.
Tillandsia seleriana – Somehwhat odd and bulbous, but creates a bold and in daring statement by itself or as a single leaf that suggests a type of animal claw or horn.
Tillandsia caput-medusae – as the same suggests, it’s a bulbous species with twisting grey green foliage that resemble the mythical creature.
Tillandsia concolor – very elegant and almost a slim, but stiffer form of T. xerographica, but with the occasional seasonal color.
Tillandsia tectorum – The fluffiest and funnest of all the species resembling a airy snowball.
Tillandsia capitata – a parent of many many hybrids known to take on striking colors especially when its on the verge of blooming.
Tillandsia butzii – Almost a baby, dark green form of T. caput-medusae. It’s very slender with clean wavy lines and a smooth texture.
Tillandsia harrisii – similar in form to T. brachyocaulos, but more densely tomentose (hairy) with a grey, white silver powder effect.
Tillandsia streptophylla – Highly unusual, exceedingly curly foliage making for a most unusual textural element
Tillandsia juncea – Very long, upright foliage with a very find, grass-like texture.
Growers of Tillandsias are beginning to see the growing trend of air plants in floral work, but are disgusted at the fact that most will treat them like cut flowers and toss them in the compost after everything else fades and wilts in the bouquet. Here are some basic tips to keep them going:
To care for air plants, follow these easy steps:
1. Keep the plants as is or mount them on a structure such as a branch, a glass globe, or just lay them on top of a potted plant.
2. Take the entire plant and dunk them in luke-warm warm water every week or two weeks.
3. Give them bright indirect light inside the house where temperatures stay around 60F and above with good air circulation. They can go outside (but in the shade) in the summer.
The best place in the home for most Tillandsia is really by the kitchen sink with a bright window. The humidity from doing dishes by hand really helps.
Tillandsias on permanent structures such as holiday wreaths* and mossy branches can remain in place but the plants should be soaked with lukewarm water every week or two depending on the humidity of your space. Make sure water does not collect in the center of the plant. Shake off the excess.
*While best used indoors in cold climates, wreaths with air plants on them can be placed on your front door outside during the holiday season if you live in a mild winter climate. However, they must be protected by bringing them inside at night and also when temperatures dip below 50F. Being tropical plants, there’s some risk involved as some species are more sensitive to cold temperatures than others.
Online Sources for Plants (some offering wholesale quantities):