Tillandsia (air plants) is a large, related group (a genus) of plants found naturally in South America and the Caribbean. Tillandsia are extraordinary plants because they don't typically need soil. They can usually be found growing on trees or rocks and absorb water and nutrients through their specialized leaves. For that purpose, they have developed organs called trichomes. Trichomes cover the Tillandsia leaves, serve many different purposes, and come in many different shapes and layouts- depending on the species.
Many Tillandsia are able to survive in a variety of extreme environments, sometimes where nothing else will grow. In exchange for high adaptability, Tillandsia typically grow slowly. There are over 700 recognized species in the Tillandsia genus, and many thousand different hybrids, varieties, cultivars, and forms based on those species.
Tillandsia display possibilities are endless
With so many different species, Tillandsia come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, and they all have great visual personality, perfect as living decorations. Their natural growing behaviors make them easy to care-for and adaptable, with many different ways to showcase them.
Tillandsia reproduce very easily by flowering to seed or by producing baby plants growing straight from the mother (pups). These qualities allow a single Tillandsia plant to become, in many years, a huge system of connected clones (a clump), many generations old.
A clump of T. neglecta
For good health, all Tillandsia need water, light, and good air circulation. When we recall where they live naturally- up in tree branches or on the face of a cliff, say- we can see why these three things are important.
Most species can be watered by submerging the plant totally for 30 minutes or so, once a week, but optimal watering depends on many different factors. Tillandsia can easily rot, so they must always be allowed to dry quickly after watering. The average Tillandsia enjoys bright but indirect sunlight, such as sunlight filtered through a tree or shining in through a south-facing window.
Given these three things optimally, Tillandsia will reward you with beautiful color, amazing flowers, and children.
A Tillandsia under grow lights
Taxonomy is the naming and classifying of living things. Sounds boring right? Wrong! Simply looking at the full scientific name of a Tillandsia can tell you much about it.
A "species" will always be written in Latin, with the Genus first (capitalized) and the species second (lowercase): Tillandsia ionantha. Plants within a species will typically look similar, and they are nearly genetically identical.
A "variety" occurs when a group of plants within a species evolves to have different looks or behaviors than expected. These differences are not enough to knock them out of the species, but are different enough to require a more-specific name. Varieties are written like this: Tillandsia ionantha var. vanhyningii. Varieties will look different from each other, but will be able to interbreed. Varieties are also sometimes used to describe plants within a species from a specific area, such as Tillandsia capitata var. dominguensis (Tillandsia capitata from Dominican Republic).
A "cultivar" (cultivated variety) is used to describe a variety of plants that was cultivated and thus does not exist in nature. Cultivars are named by their creators, so they contain non-Latin words, and are written like this: Tillandsia ionantha 'Zebrina'
The plant's epithet (in this case Zebrina), can be up to three words and is contained in single quotation marks.
A "hybrid" plant occurs when two different species produce offspring via seed. Hybrids that occur naturally are written with the pollen parent first and the seed parent second, separated by a multiplication sign: T. paucifolia × T. xerographica. If the hybrid plant is described in a scientific work, it is given a new Latin species name, with a preceding × to denote a hybrid- when the above hybrid was described by Paul T. Isley III in the Journal of the Bromeliad Society, it was thereafter named: Tillandsia × wisdomiana. Human-made hybrids are given a non-Latin capitalized name, without a preceding ×: Tillandsia Antonio (a hybrid of T. cyanea × T. platyrachis). Hybrids may look more like one parent or the other, or a mix of in between, or a bit different from both! They may act in different ways than their parents and have new strengths/weaknesses. Hybrids also have the tendency to grow to a much larger size than either of the parents.
Further classification splits can occur, such as "forms." Forms are groups of plants within a species showing qualities not different enough to warrant a variety, but different enough to warrant a more specific name, such as Tillandsia ionantha (Mexican form).
A funny thing about taxonomy is that it’s a human-made attempt to understand a natural world which often does not like to be classified (is light a particle or a wave?!). It’s not uncommon for a plant species to be reclassified into a new genus, or to be deleted entirely and moved into another species. The precise and correct classification of a plant all depends on its genes- as our understanding of genes increases, the picture becomes clearer and plants are often more-accurately classified.
T. tectorum in glass globe