Today’s edition of Straits Times Life! carried an article on airplants. Penned by Andrew Tan, the article contained a Singaporean’s experience of growing these plants that belong to the pineapple family, Bromeliaceae. Although related to the terrestrial pineapple plants, airplants, botanically classified in the genus Tillandsia, adopt an epiphytic growth habit.
Depending on the species, these plants either perch on rock surfaces or tree branches in their native habitat. The roots of airplants, unlike many other plants we are familiar with, are used for anchorage. Nutrients and water are absorbed via specialised scale-like structures, called trichromes, on their leaves.
Airplants were first introduced into Singapore in the early 1990s. They became an instant hit as they are touted to be ’clean and fuss-free houseplants’ that do not require soil to grow and could be seen being put on sale in a great number of places that range from supermarkets to various departmental stores. Somehow, the craze died down soon after but made a comeback about two to three years ago and this time, they were peddled on push-carts.
I noticed airplants live up to their name as fuss-free plants that are also easy to grow, provided they are grown outdoors in Singapore. They do well probably due to the presence of high humidity outdoors and are usually offered protection from constant strong winds due to the location where they are grown, such as under the canopy of a small tree like the frangipani. Ventilation in form of light breezes in an outdoor space seems to also help to dry the crowns of these plants which reduces the likelihood of them rotting.
On the other hand, airplants are not that easy for apartment dwellers. Gardeners have to work quite hard to prevent their plants from drying out. Constant winds encountered on higher levels of an apartment tend to rob the moisture out from these plants. To add to the problem, humidity is generally low in an apartment. In order to rehydrate their plants, apartment gardeners have to resort to soak their plants for several hours but due to poor ventilation in apartments, plants grown under such conditions tend to rot. Tillandsia species with bulbous bases suffer from a high casualty rate when they are grown in an apartment.
In short, gardeners with an outdoor space at ground level tend to face less problems when they grow these epiphytic bromeliads. The apartment gardener, on the other hand, will have to select the right species to grow and find the right balance for the range of factors that is required for success in growing these intriguing plants.