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If You Like Sedum, You'll Love Tillandsia

Jill enjoys cooking, abstract painting, stewardship & learning about gardening through the MD Native Plant Society.

I have a confession to make: I'm not very good with Sedum houseplants.

I never manage to repot them (they're always in such tiny pots!), so I can never fit my fingers down into the soil to check for dryness. And because I don't check the soil, I either overwater them or underwater them. And eventually kill them.

For me, Tillandsia is much easier to grow— even though it requires more care.

adventures-with-air-plants-tillandsia

Commonly called tillies or air plants, tillandsia has the same rosette shape some species of sedum have. But with tillies, you can quickly tell if your care is on the right track.

  • When the leaves turn yellow, your tillies are getting too much light.
  • If their bottoms go dark and mushy, your tillies are getting too much water.
  • When the tips of their leaves turn brown, your tillies need more frequent watering.
  • And if their leaves start to curl inward or wrinkle, they need water right now.

Bromeliads [like Tillandsia] are some of the best all-around houseplants for removing pollution from the air.

— Barbara H. Smith, HGIC Horticulture Extension Agent, Clemson University

Also, unlike sedum, tillies don't grow in soil. So you don't have to worry about porosity or pH or any of that— or about cleaning up spilled dirt. There isn't any!

They're fun to display, too. There are so many possibilities.

How to Care for Tillies

Here are some tips on how to care for the lovely Tillandsia.

Spritzing

Give your tillies a good spritzing once a week, twice a week, or even daily, spraying them until water runs off the leaves.

How often you mist depends upon how humid your house is. (When the leaves start to wrinkle or roll up, it's definitely time to mist!)

After misting, set your tillies on a platter or towel to air dry. Tillies need good air circulation; otherwise, they may rot.

For this reason, don't place them in sphagnum moss, which tends to hold moisture, and don't put them in an enclosed terrarium for any length of time.

Air plants needs just as much care as other houseplants—maybe even more!

Air plants needs just as much care as other houseplants—maybe even more!

Soaking

Some people set their tillies on a shallow platter of water and let them soak for several hours a month. That's how the garden center where I purchased my tillies watered them, and it's the practice I adopted— at first.

What I didn't think about was how humid the garden center was compared to our home. It was like a sauna, while our house is very dry. Soon, my tillies were almost dried up!

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So I began soaking them.

First, I soaked them face down in a bowl of water for 30 minutes a week. They still were too dry! So I began not just soaking them but submerging them in water.

This Tillandsia bulbosa plant, purchased last year, has already produced a "pup."

This Tillandsia bulbosa plant, purchased last year, has already produced a "pup."

Submerging

I now submerge my tillies overnight in a bowl of water each month.

I fill a large mixing bowl, place the tillies in it face down, then set the bottom of a springform pan or a lightweight lid on top to keep them submerged.

It seems like too much, doesn't it? Like I'm drowning them. But it isn't. In fact, they still often seem too dry, even after spritzing, and I'm considering submerging them twice a month to see if that improves their leaf quality.

Fertilizing

Tillies eat and drink through specialized structures on their leaves called trichomes. It is through these, not their roots, that they extract water and nutrients from the environment.

Because your home is unlikely to be rich in decaying matter, you will probably want to fertilize your tillies with bromeliad food to keep them looking their best.

Clemson University Home and Garden Extension Agent Barbara Smith recommends two fertilizing methods.

In nature, tillies attach themselves by their roots onto trees, other plants and rocks, forming masses as they produce pups.

In nature, tillies attach themselves by their roots onto trees, other plants and rocks, forming masses as they produce pups.

Light Requirements

Tillie houseplants grow best in bright, filtered light in a south- or east-facing window. Too much direct sunlight isn't good for them.

High-humidity areas of the home like bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms are good locations for tillies if the rooms have windows.

The tillies in our foyer enjoy indirect evening sun.

The tillies in our foyer enjoy indirect evening sun.

Temperature Requirements

Air plants do best in temperatures between 50–90°F. Depending on where you live, you may be able to grow tillies outdoors either part of the year or all year round.

What to Look for When Buying a Tillie

Just before the pandemic, I purchased five small tillies from a garden center not far from our home.

They cost about $20 total, including tax, and were in fairly good shape. Although they had a few brown leaf tips, which meant they hadn't been watered as regularly as they should have been, none of the plants had dead leaves or spongy areas that would have indicated rot.

I took this pic just after purchasing my tillies. From left to right, they are T. brachycaulos, T. ionantha, T. xenographica, another T. brachycaulos, and T. bulbosa.

I took this pic just after purchasing my tillies. From left to right, they are T. brachycaulos, T. ionantha, T. xenographica, another T. brachycaulos, and T. bulbosa.

If you buy tillies in person, be sure to select healthy specimens too, avoiding plants that have:

  • multiple broken leaves or dead leaves
  • numerous brown leaf tips
  • faded leaves that are rolled or wrinkled (These tillies have been underwatered and may be dead.)
  • soft, squishy bottoms (These tillies have been overwatered and have developed rot. They are unlikely to recover.)

Tillies for Sale Online

Air Plant Greenhouse, Air Plant Supply Company, Etsy, Amazon and Air Plant City sell both tillie display merch and plants online.

I cannot personally attest to their quality, but the reviews on the Air Plant City and Air Plant Supply Company sites are overwhelmingly positive.

Tillies on average are cheaper than sedum. As with all plants, larger specimens cost more than smaller ones.

As of this writing, Air Plant Supply Company is selling a variety pack of five small tillies for $15.95. Tiny tillies (pups) are even cheaper at $11.95.

Air Plant City's prices are cheaper still, with a five-pack of small ones going for $14.50.

Amazon's prices are comparable at about $16 but with mixed reviews.

A closeup of T. bulbosa with pup. Note the undeveloped root. If you frequently move your tillie houseplants like I do, their roots won't form attachments.

A closeup of T. bulbosa with pup. Note the undeveloped root. If you frequently move your tillie houseplants like I do, their roots won't form attachments.

The tillies I purchased locally have grown quite a bit in a year. In fact, two have since bloomed and produced "pups," so now I have seven! Er, make that eight. One tillie produced two little miniatures of itself!

Sometimes tillies die after producing pups. I, of course, am hoping mine live. They are such charming plants, and caring for them is a pleasure.

Here's T. ionantha with two pups, only one of which is large enough to remove.

Here's T. ionantha with two pups, only one of which is large enough to remove.

Resources

  • Ciesinski, Therese. "How to Kill an Air Plant." GardenSMART. https://www.GardenSMART.com/?p=articles&title=How_to_Kill_an_Air_Plant. 20 January 2021.
  • "Grow Airplants Like a Pro-- Here's How." Better Homes & Gardens. https://www.bhg.com/gardening/houseplants/care/grow-air-plants/. 16 January 2020.
  • Papas, Carol. "Tillandsia (Air Plants)." PennState Extension. Pennsylvania State University, https://extension.psu.edu/tillandsia-air-plants. 11 February 2018.
  • Rose, Stephanie. "What Type of Air Plant Do I Have." Garden Therapy. https://gardentherapy.ca/common-air-plant-varieties/. 6 January 2021.
  • Silver, Johanna. "These 6 Simple Tricks Will Keep Your Air Plant Alive." Sunset. https://www.sunset.com/garden/keep-your-air-plant-alive-with-these-6-simple-tricks-tillandsia. 16 January 2020.
  • Smith, Barbara H. "Air Plants Fact Sheet." Home and Garden Information Center. Clemson University, https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/air-plants/. 19 Feb. 2017.
  • Steil, Aaron. "All About Air Plants." Horticulture and Home Pest News. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Iowa State University. https://hortnews.extension.iastate.edu/2019/12/all-about-air-plants. 113 Dec. 2019.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Jill Spencer

Comments

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on February 02, 2021:

Donna! It is so good to hear from you! I hope you and your husband are both doing well. Life has taken me away from HubPages for a while, but it's nice to be writing on here again. I am planning a hub about air plant crafts for next month. Whatever project your air plant hub is about, I know it will be gorgeous because you do such fine creative work. Mine will be EASY! Wishing you the best. Take care, Jill

Donna Herron from USA on February 02, 2021:

Hi Jill - Thanks for another great article. I had heard of air plants, but didn't really know what they were. You're article is a wonderful introduction and resource. I'm full of ideas about using Tillies in crafts and can't wait to start a new project!

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on January 30, 2021:

That's interesting. I'm betting they are the xeric type that grow in Mexico, too. Am going to have to look that up! Thanks for commenting, Peggy!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 29, 2021:

We have many of them growing in the wild where we live in Houston.

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on January 28, 2021:

Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment. I have seen pictures of Tillies on telephone pole wires! And when the giant balls of them bloom-- beautiful. You are so so very lucky to see them in person. Best to you! Jill

Viet Doan from Big Island, Hawaii on January 28, 2021:

I love Tillies! In Hawaii, they grow happily on trees, rock walls, fence posts, rain gutters - practically anything they can attach themselves to! They look great and get along well with other epiphytes like orchids and bromeliads in the garden. Such a delightful article, thanks Jill!

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