Taking to the air

PUBLISHED: 00:52 02 February 2012 | UPDATED: 20:59 20 February 2013

Naomi Slade leaves mud and frozen ground behind this month for a taste of the exotic – at home.

The garden may be best viewed through a window right now, but there is one group of plants that looks great all year round. Airplants, or Tillandsia, as they are properly known, are members of the bromeliad family, native to South and Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico.

Needing just air, light and water to survive, many grow on trees and rock faces while those on the ground use their roots only for anchorage. Ideal as house plants, they can also be treated as exotic perennials in the summer garden.

I discovered Reading-based Just Airplants at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2011. "I find airplants fascinating," owner Gill Passman told me. "The fact that they grow without soil turns on its head ones perception of what a plant should be!"

There are 600 species of airplant and 400 hybrids. They range in size from a few millimetres to rainforest specimens that can be over a metre across although most of the smaller, commercially available varieties are from arid areas. To water, they should be fully submerged in rainwater and then allowed to dry off, avoiding accumulation of water in the centre or at the base of the plant and they should be kept out of direct sunlight.

"People often think they dont need water, but the fact is that they live in air, not on air. Gill explained. "It is an important difference. In the wild they would assimilate nutrients from plant debris and airborne dust, but a very dilute foliar feed does them no harm at all."

Gills Chelsea display was a fabulously exotic confection of Tillandsia and other bromeliads. Orange Tillandsia dyeriana fires out between large purplish Neoregelia Zuleica, striped N. Tiger Cub and Cryptanthus Strawberries Flambe all nestling amongst the rocks that play host to T. ionantha Mexico and shocking pink T. cyanea. Higher up, T. streptophylla, T. glabrior and T. edithae are perched on dry branches and hung around with swags of T. usneoides, often known as Spanish Moss, while Guzmania Marjan bursts upwards like great yellow lilies.

"They really are good all year round plants. They dont need flowers to be interesting because of their architectural structure, although some like Tillandsia bulbosa and T. straminea will actually flower in winter," said Gill.

Traditionally, Tillandsia are displayed on branches or tucked into shells, however there can be problems with restricted air flow or watering particularly if the plant is glued in place, something Gill does not encourage. A tropical scene in your sitting room is an exciting idea but the architectural structure of Tillandsia also lends itself to contemporary displays on driftwood or in a minimalist, pebble-filled glass bowl.

"They are adaptable to suit all tastes. The lovely thing about Tillandsia is that you can display them any way you like!"

Just Airplants will be at RHS Chelsea 2012, provisional stand no. GBP/15 www.justairplants.com

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