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John's Garden: Air plants – bromeliads and other epiphytes

This week I will describe some of my favorite epiphytes, plants that can grow outside of traditional soil-filled pots and instead thrive with simply some moist air and light.



Bromeliads, tillandsias (a less common type of bromeliad) and Cryptanthus (earth stars) are all attractive houseplants that can thrive in the right conditions without a traditional pot or watering schedule.

The rewards to growing these impressive specimens are the dramatic foliage or flower heads produced over their often-long life.

Bromeliad growers often describe the stunning beauty offered by this plant's foliage or its amazingly colorful bracts that hold small flowers of purple, red, pink and white.

There are bromeliads – some of the most common garden center varieties – that offer the grower both spectacular foliage as well as showy flower stalks and these specimens include aechmea fasciata (urn plant) and Vriesea splendens. 

Though not the easiest indoor flower to grow, it is also far from the most difficult. The interesting growth pattern – a rosette of leathery strap/blade-like leaves – form a central water-holding vase that can give rise to flower stalks if cared for properly.

It is not the choice of an impatient gardener, as it may take years for a flower head/stalk to arise, but once it does flower, the display may last as long as three months due to the long lasting bracts (flower holding foliage, which is often mistaken for petals as in poinsettias). 

One of the noteworthy oddities of this plant species is the method of potting and watering. Bromeliads require no soil and often live happily without even a pot.

Though not complete/official epiphytes (plants which grow on trees or rocks, taking most nutrients from the atmosphere) these flowering wonders have very small root networks, which grow best in moist sphagnum moss and slight amounts of compost, not topsoil, and can be in small pots filled with this moss/compost blend or wired to driftwood with moss alone at the base. 

Watering these plants is not conventional since water should be poured into the leave's central vase formation where it can be held, absorbed, dripped to the moss below and overall add to the humidity requirements for the success of the species. 

The native home of bromeliads are the tropical jungles of South and Central America, where most are found in the crooks of trees, happy with their neighbors, the orchids and ferns. With such a wet and warm natural environment, clearly these plants love humidity and a very dry home simply would not do. 

A bright location out of direct sunlight where the temperature often reaches 18 to 24 Celsius is best and, as noted above, moisture is required.

These plants and the moss they sit in should be misted regularly, once every week or two, depending on a home's humidity levels.  Every few months the plant's 'vase' of foliage should be topped up with a light mix of liquid fertilizer and water. A very diluted fertilizer should be used.

Traditional tillandsias (such as blue-flower torch) and the very unusual grey tillandsias (such as Spanish moss) can be found at some of Newfoundland's largest garden centers.

Many of these unique plants, dozens of varieties form the grey tillandsia group, can simply sit atop a rock, driftwood or table top since they are covered in moisture absorbing scales instead of a root system. These scales take in water from the air (or a mister) and obtain much of their nutritional requirements from dust particles.

Tillandsias enjoy moist, warm environments within the home where they receive little direct sunlight, but with indirect sunlight and sufficient heat (20-24 Celsius) these small wonders will often produce interesting, and often colorful flower stalks.

Cryptanthus or the earth stars are a relative of the common grocery store bromeliad, but dwarf in size and produce little in the way of flowers.

These plants are known more for their rough, attractively stripped foliage and grow best in high humidity like that found in a misted sunroom or glass terrarium. They can root in mosses, but enjoy some compost or very light soil mixed in.

For those indoor gardeners looking for a unique, small-scale houseplant a Cryptanthus might fit the bill. The best varieties I have found are Cryptanthus zonatus and Cryptanthus bivittatus, which are both easier to grow. The hardest to grow and of course the most attractive is the brightly coloured Cryptanthus bromelioides tricolor (rainbow star).

If you haven't done so already, give bromeliads and their cousins a try in your home this winter and join me next week for another look at houseplants.

If you have any question about gardening in Newfoundland and Labrador, contact me at ‘’.


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