Gar­den­ing with kids: Amaz­ing air plant decor

Manitoba Gardener Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Ta­nia Mof­fat

“What are those, mom?”

What in­deed! If you fre­quent green­houses you have likely come across a dis­play of these plant odd­i­ties. Til­land­sias are fun and in­trigu­ing plants for chil­dren and adults alike, but they also pro­vide a great learn­ing op­por­tu­nity for lit­tle ones.

The plant world is di­verse, and each plant has developed its own way to sur­vive in the world. Til­land­sias are of­ten found liv­ing high up in the trees, of­ten cov­er­ing branches or nes­tled into lit­tle crooks or even perched on rocks. They seem to ex­ist on noth­ing but air. En­ter our chance for a les­son in hor­ti­cul­ture with the kids.

Most til­land­sias are epi­phytes or plants that use other plants for sup­port. They are re­lated to the bromeliad fam­ily known for their fab­u­lous flow­ers and re­mark­able wa­ter stor­age. There are ap­prox­i­mately 600 species in the genus Tilland­sia. These plants are only found in the Amer­i­cas, specif­i­cally, the south­ern United States, Mex­ico, Cen­tral and South America. Per­haps one of the most com­monly rec­og­nized tilland­sia is Span­ish moss ( T. us­neoides) which is not a moss at all. It hangs in ro­man­tic lacy strands from live oaks and bald cy­press trees through­out the old South. In the past it had been used for ev­ery­thing from auto seat pad­ding, home in­su­la­tion, pack­ing ma­te­rial and pad­ding for voodoo dolls.

Tilland­sia is not par­a­sitic and does not steal nu­tri­ents or wa­ter from its host; they ac­tu­ally do get all the wa­ter and nu­tri­ents they need from the air. Their roots are in fact only used to an­chor the plant in place.

How do they live?

The plant sur­vives through the means of cells in their spe­cial­ized tri­chomes, the base of the hairs that cover their leaves. While many other plants have tri­chomes, no oth­ers have the ca­pac­ity for wick­ing wa­ter out of the air in the way til­land­sias do. As mois­ture touches the leaf, it spreads to the base of each tiny hair and is sucked up through the process of cap­il­lary at­trac­tion. This is the abil­ity for wa­ter to flow into nar­row spa­ces with­out the aid of grav­ity.

Car­ing for your plant

These re­mark­able plants are ex­cel­lent house plants but will need to be wa­tered when they are grown in­doors. Wa­ter­ing a tilland­sia is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent than wa­ter­ing other plants. A quick shower un­der the tap once or twice a week is all they need if they are an­chored down they can be misted with a spray bot­tle in­stead. Tilland­sia does have beau­ti­ful flow­ers, to get yours to flower, use a 0-10-10 fer­til­izer in the wa­ter you use in the spring. Re­sist putting your plant on top of the soil of another plant pot; the soil will cause the roots to rot.

There are two main types of these lit­tle plants, gray or mostly gray, and green. The gray leafed va­ri­ety is com­mon to ar­eas that ex­pe­ri­ence long droughts. The leaves re­flect sun­light and help to con­serve mois­ture. The green kind is na­tive to more south­ern lo­cales with rainy and hu­mid cli­mates. Gray leafed tilland­sia are the best va­ri­ety for house plants. If you see lit­tle off­sets com­ing off of the mother plant, you can re­move them once they are a third of the size of the mother. If they don’t come off eas­ily with your fin­gers, you can use a knife or shears.

Sim­ple projects for dis­play­ing tilland­sia

I love these lit­tle plants and so do the boys, so we of­ten pick up dif­fer­ent ones from time to time. One of the best ways to dis­play them in your home is to mimic their nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment.

We’ve pur­chased an old wood box frame, added some moss, pine cones, and bark to cre­ate a per­fect home for one of our plants. This liv­ing art piece is one creative way to dis­play these nifty mem­bers of the plant world on your wall.

Plac­ing them on in­ter­est­ing bits of bark or drift­wood that you’ve col­lected from a trip to the beach or around your yard is another nat­u­ral set­ting that can cre­ate a min­i­mal­is­tic or­na­ment for a shelf or cof­fee table. You can even make larger ar­range­ments for a din­ner table set­ting.

Use flo­ral wire or fish­ing line to tie the plant down onto the wood so that the roots can at­tach them­selves. You can also use hot glue to do this, (after let­ting it cool for 15 sec­onds), but I pre­fer us­ing wire. Kids craft glue will work as well, but do not use any epoxy or pe­tro­leum glue as it can harm the plant. Be careful not to place the plant in large holes that may hold wa­ter as this could cause it to rot.

Another fun way to dis­play tilland­sia is to hang them in clear glass balls with a side open­ing. You can usu­ally find these at your lo­cal green­house or craft store. Place some sand on the bot­tom or rocks and voila an in­stant or­na­ment to hang in your win­dow.

Large twigs or branches of bright red dog­wood or white birch can be used to cre­ate a hang­ing of sev­eral plants. Use twine or rib­bon to form a hang­ing loop by tieing it at both ends of the branch, then use the twine, rib­bon or fish­ing line to tie up a cou­ple of plants, let­ting them hang at dif­fer­ent lengths.

There are so many creative ways to dis­play these plants. Have fun with your chil­dren as you de­cide which is the best way to show­case them in your home.

Til­land­sias don't live in dirt, giv­ing an ex­cuse to for you to get creative with their dis­play.

Cre­at­ing pic­ture frame dis­plays have be­come a pop­u­lar way to fea­ture suc­cu­lents like til­land­sias.

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