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Gardening | Spanish moss, air plants grow in popularity

Tulips bloom in Brookgreen Gardens.
Tulips bloom in Brookgreen Gardens. The Sun News file

The genus Tillandsia includes both air plants and Spanish moss. The air plants we see in stores and nurseries are sold under their common name or their genus name, Tillandsia. Spanish moss, also called air plant by some, is also of the Tillandsia genus. Yes, this redundancy in common and botanical names is confusing.

Both air plants and Spanish moss are epiphytes. They get everything they need from sunlight, air and water.

Epiphytes absorb water from rain, fog and dew (but not humidity). The slender, branching stems of Spanish moss and the spiky or curling leaves of air plants are covered with overlapping scales, which trap water for the plant to gradually take in. The plants are slow growers, adapted to the low levels of mineral nutrients they derive from dust and debris in the air. They use their host only for support.

Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides, is a flowering epiphytic plant native to the coastal plain from Virginia to Texas. Contrary to common misconception, Spanish moss is not a parasite and does not damage trees. The fact that it colonizes on trees that are already dead or dying leads some people to believe it has killed its host. An epiphyte uses a tree merely for support. It does not penetrate and take nutrients from it.

Heavy growth can hold a considerable amount of water, which makes these air plants heavy when wet. It can also deprive lower branches of needed sun. In such cases, Spanish moss can be mechanically removed to protect the tree. Spanish moss thrives in partial to full sun and good air circulation.

You may have noticed that Spanish moss has a proclivity for bald cypress and live oaks, likely because excess minerals leach out of these trees. However, you also will find the epiphyte growing on pecan trees, fences, dead limbs, crape myrtles, some pine trees, even power lines.

Spanish moss typically sprouts from seed. Plants produce tiny greenish flowers. Their seed pods split open to release feathery-looking airborne seeds that float through the air, ultimately settling in the bark of a tree branch or other support to propagate.

There are mites and chiggers (red bugs) in Spanish moss. The chiggers are usually only on lower branches. The epiphyte also provides shelter for wildlife like rat snakes, birds, bats, tiny millipedes, spiders, frogs and lizards.

If you want Spanish moss in your backyard, collect a few handfuls, and hang it in your target trees. If it likes the location, it will grow; if it doesn’t, it will die.

There are more than 550 species of air plants native in Mexico, South and Central America, plus 16 in Florida. Nested on driftwood, displayed in terrariums (no dirt necessary), suspended in the air and secured on a tree, they have been trendy for a few years and are still growing in popularity.

Air plants require regular water. They are easy to grow but not carefree.

Outside air plants like humid semi-shade and indirect or early morning sun. Inside bright filtered light is good. They are comfortable in temperatures between 50 and 100 degrees but must come inside during frost and freezing weather.

Roots serve to anchor the plant. If they are absent, the plant will continue to grow as if nothing is missing because they take in water and nutrients through their leaves.

Generally, an air plant life cycle lasts about a year. The plant blooms once in late winter-early summer, produces two to eight pups, then the mother plant dies, leaving the pups to continue the cycle.

Proper watering is the most critical element of correct care. Plants need to be watered one to three times per week. Spray or soak the plant until leaf tops and bottoms are wet and water rolls off. Plants need to completely dry before they are watered again.

If kept indoors, fertilize a Tillandsia once per month with 1/4 strength, basic water-soluble, low-nitrogen plant food. Too much fertilizer is detrimental.

Now that you are familiar with Tillandsia and air plants, you may be interested to know that they belong to the Bromeliad family, which is sometimes called the “pineapple” family.

Reach DEBBIE MENCHEK, a Clemson Master Gardener, at dmgha3@aol.com.