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Tillandsias by Malcolm Campbell

Tillandsia is a genera of Bromeliads predominantly from South America. You will recognise at least one Bromeliad as the "Pineapple" and may know of at least one Tillandsia as "Spanish Moss", Tillandsia usneoides which drapes increasingly from the Melaleucas of the Florida Everglades, much to the chagrin of our American plantsfolk. C'est la vie!

Tillandsias are mostly grey-leaved epiphytic plants, with some that are lithophytes... you know they live on rocks, but they all derive their total nutrition from the air. Yes you read that correctly... they essentially feed on air! Of course if there's a little nutrient in the form of bird excrement mixed with it diluted with the odd torrential downpour, so much the better. Truth is that many of these species of Tillandsia and in particular the grey-leaved species come from fairly dry and arid areas that get rain infrequently. The richest habitat for the grey-leaved Tillandsias is from an arc in southern Argentina through Brazil to Venezuela and Colombia as well as in Mexico and the states of Central America and the southern United States of America. From the cloud forests of Mexico, the sub-tropical Andes to the tierra fria or cold dry zone of Peru and Bolivia, an amazing flora has fairly recently gained prominence in European homes. Why European homes I hear you ask? Well firstly being epiphytes they are seldom grown in the garden and the small tenements of many frustrated European gardeners lend themselves well to the culture of these stand-alone plants. Secondly having come from such hostile climates in South America, they thrive in the glasshouses and enclosed window conservatories that are a common feature of German and Dutch homes. The Germans in particular have scoured South America searching for new forms before the bulldozers remove them forever as potential objects for their conservatories. Many of the species are particularly small and slow growing, they have beautiful symmetry and form, as well as being very undemanding in their culture, once you have understood their requirements. In short they survive the built environment and make a survivors' statement about their frontier origins.

When a rosette of Tillandsia flowers, after some 3-7 years from seed, that rosette generally withers and dies, but offsets or pups emerge from the base so that the plants can be divided vegetatively and propagated easily. The offsets are twisted from the parent or cut as close to the parent base as possible and mounted onto a base plate, which because they are live on tree trunks, is equivalent to potting them-up for most other plants. We are fortunate in Australia to have some very durable driftwood and aged Mallee roots in the fuelwood depots that have some marvellous hardwood plates for mounting. German Tillandsia growers would willingly pay ten deutschmarks for a small section of contorted Mallee root that you have probably jammed into the slow combustion heater last winter. Almost any old root or section of wood can be used, but because of their small size, a dainty little piece of driftwood is ideal, but Cork bark, a dead Sheoak branch or even crusty old grapevine trunk makes an attractive mount. Into the wood you will need to drill a hole all the way through at about the size of the Tillandsia base of your offset, so that it can be pushed into the hole and remain firm. The hole is to facilitate drainage so that the stem does not rot away. The offset will need to be glued into place with a PVA water based glue, like Aquadere®, because unless it is absolutely firm they sulk and fail-to-thrive. The old F-T-T* syndrome, which means they cark it! (*F-T-F is foresters’ jargon for “fail to thrive”, that generally means they predict it will die.)

Of course in the wild they set seed after a year of maturation on the spike and release tiny parachutes of silken thread, with a tiny seed at the bottom and these drift onto rough-trunked trees or rocks. With the early season rains, the silken chute collapses onto the seed and provides a mesh of bird free environment for the seed to expand and germinate. They grow very slowly and many fall to the ground in the process, unable to find a firm footing as they grow. If you aim to grow them from seed use cork bark as the host, because it has lots of tiny niches and is absorbent without causing "damp-off", which is that insidious fungal disease, Botrytis that decimates our seedlings when the drainage is too poor or the ventilation inadequate. Tillandsias need excellent drainage and air moving by them, for how else will they feed?

When the weather is warm they can be misted with tank water and diluted Phostrogen® fertilizer. I stress rainwater if you live somewhere that has water with salt residues in it, because that causes their leaves to desiccate with the usual salt toxicity symptoms, brown edges to the leaves. I stress Phostrogen® fertilizer as a water-soluble fertilizer that has very low salt residues in it, as opposed to most other proprietary products. It is however expensive but it lasts a long time.

If you find the grey woolly-leaved Tillandsias fascinating, you will need to provide some shelter from the rain in most areas so that they don't get too wet or too cold, but there is a great variety of species suited to most Australian gardens. Most will need light shadecloth in our warm states and shadecloth is also useful to protect them from hail in some areas, but they are certainly plants that don't need fussing over.

I have listed those that you are likely to come across, because some collectors have acquired some quite esoteric species and hybrids, imported legitimately to meet the AQIS quarantine requirements. For further reference start with the Bromeliad Society of Australia's 112 page booklet, Growing Bromeliads, published by Kangaroo Press, second edition 1990. If your interest is sustained then you may be ready for the 448 page standard reference The Bromeliad Lexicon by Werner Rauh, the English Edition of 1990 is published by Blandford in the UK, but available locally at around $65!

Hardy species recommended for Adelaide, Perth in Australia and comparable Mediterranean climates :

T. tectorum silvery scales on the bracts becoming red at the tips, inconspicuous flowers, leaves up to 20cm long, needs bright sunny site with very light watering.

T. xerographica silvery grey leaves 10cm long and nearly round, red sheath to the 40cm spike and needs very bright sunny site.

T. bulbosa "Squid plant", with an egg-shaped swelling like a bulb and slender leaves that circle a margenta spike, likes some humidity and I love it!

T. jucunda little spiky silver leaves to 15cm long, the flower is a lovely lemon yellow and sweetly perfumed.

T. geminiflora they resemble miniature pineapples with leaves to 15cm long and tinged in pink, because of the name just has to be mounted in pairs and is quite easily grown.

T. stricta densely grey-scaled small leaves to 10cm long, with blue petals contrasting against the brilliant red bracts on the flower spike. Easily grown and flowers prolifically.

T. streptophylla "Curly Locks" grows to 30cm tall large spoon shaped leaves that curl into ringlocks, very decorative with masses of pink and light blue spikes. Needs bright sunny conditions.

T. usneoides "Spanish Moss" although it grows freely, it has to be divided into fairly large clumps in these climates or else it will atrophy. The flowers are not discernible.

Recommended species for Melbourne, Canberra, Hobart and cool temperate areas:

T. aeranthos only grows to about 15cm but the masses of leaves form a dense rosette, the spikes are red with contrasting purple and blue flowers.

T. bergeri easily grown and forms clumps very readily. Its flowers are blue and white on a short spike.

As well as these, T. stricta , T. jucunda and T. geminiflora are all are good starters and described under the Adelaide and Perth recommendations.

Hardy species for Sydney, Newcastle, Brisbane and north to Rockhampton, as well as sub-tropical humid areas:

T. streptophylla grows to 45cm tall large spoon shaped leaves that don't seem to curl in the tropics, still very decorative with masses of pink and light blue spikes. Needs bright sunny open aspect.

T. variabilis (syn.T. valenzuelana ) grows to 45cm in the north with the leaves tinged pink and lilac flowers. Needs bright sunny conditions.

T. jucunda little spiky silver leaves to 20cm long, the flower is a lovely lemon yellow and sweetly perfumed.

T. polystachya a larger plant that forms dense rosettes with reddish-green bracts and blue flowers, that colour up much better in northern climates. Likes damp and shady conditions.

T. cyanea and T. lindenii are similar species that mostly have compact rosettes and slender leaves to 30cm long and stunning bright violet flowers. Both need humidity and partial shade.

T. complanata a most obliging plant with carmine and violet flowers that go on forever, has no offsets and can only be grown from seed, so your patience is required. Likes cool and moist conditions even in the sub-tropics.

T. usneoides "Spanish Moss" grows vigorously and makes a wonderful backdrop to a greenhouse.

While many of these grey-leaved species thrive in sub tropical and tropical climates they don't seem to flower as readily, so our friends in Perth and Adelaide may grow them more slowly but they flower them more regularly.