Living From The Air
The Gardener|October 2018
Living From The Air

Air plants, air ferns, oxygen plants, tillandsias, Spanish moss, old man’s beard, air bromeliad…

Tinus Oberholzer

These are all names commonly used for the various members of the genus Tillandsia. This is a genus of plants not always well understood by people, but one that is always intriguing.

What are air plants?

Air plants are members of the genus Tillandsia, which in turn forms part of the bromeliad or pineapple-plant family. They grow on trees where they attach themselves to branches and can often be seen hanging from trees, seemingly living from the air – hence the name. Not all tillandsias are air plants though, as some prefer to have their roots growing in moss or leaf litter and not exposed on the branches of trees.

Are air plants and air ferns the same?

Although some people refer to certain tillandsias as air ferns, this is not correct. The term is more commonly used for a member of the genus Sertularia. Sertularia is not a real fern – in fact, it is not even a plant. Sertularia is related to corals and jellyfish, and the ‘plants’ are collected by trawlers. The animals are then dried and often dyed green, to be sold as low-maintenance ‘house plants’. (They were very popular in the 80s.) Because they are not alive they need no maintenance, water or light.

Where do air plants come from?

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October 2018