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SOMETHING IN THE AIR

How about growing a plant in mid-air? Although it may sound like some space-age idea, if you have ever traveled down south you have probably seen the perfect example of this. That Spanish moss hanging high in the trees is a tillandsia, or air plant, as they are sometimes called. Tillandsias are members of the bromeliad family, and unlike their terrestrial cousins that grow in pots, tillandsias grow in the air using other plants for support. Tillandsias are not parasitic, meaning they do not harm the plant they are growing on. They have roots, but these are used merely to support the tillandsia as it attaches itself to a host. All of the nutrients a tillandsia needs are absorbed through scales on their leaves. Tillandsias get all of their moisture and nutrients from the air around them. For example, the Spanish moss high in the tree is fed by rainfall, dust and leaves.

Tillandsia is a good houseplant; all it needs is good air circulation, water and light. They grow soil -- free because their leaves soak in needed nutrients. They are easy to care for, and there are many to choose from. You can buy tillandsias already growing on a small piece of wood, a lava rock or shell. But if you want to create a living piece of art, purchase a bare root Tillandsia and mount it yourself.

You can grow them on wood, stone or a piece of shell. What the tillandsia grows on does not matter, remember it's not getting its nutrients here. So pick something that suits the look and style you want. Get creative and go searching for a piece of creek wood or use that beautiful shell you found last year on vacation.

When attaching the tillandsia, it must be held firmly in place until the roots have a chance to attach themselves to the branch or shell. You can use fishing line, wire or even hot glue to attach the plant initially. There is a special tillandsia glue available at florists and garden shops, but wire or hot glue seems to work just as well. After a short time the tillandsia's roots will attach to the holder and the plant will remain firmly in place.

Water the tillandsia once a week. To help keep the plant watered, you may want to secure some moss around the base of the plant. Attach the moss to the branch, and keep the moss moist, this will help provide water for the tillandsia. You can water by misting the plant, or soaking the moss at the base of the plant. If you can move your plant, once a month you may want to immerse it in water for about 15 minutes. Shake the excess water off, and put it back in its filtered light.

In summer, you will want to fertilize tillandsias monthly with a liquid fertilizer at 1/4 strength. Keep them in bright, filtered light, and do more frequent watering. Tillandsias have a great variety of colors and shapes. Every one will flower when it reaches maturity. There are many different flower colors and sizes available.

Bromeliads are, in general, beautiful and easy to grow. Bromeliads need filtered light, so they won't take valuable sunny window space, need only occasional feeding, and are very easy to take care of. They have bold stripes, lots of patterns and colors and are ornamental. Some get flowers that shoot up from the center and grow taller than the rest of the plant, while others are smaller than a small African violet. Unlike the air plants which don't need soil, bromeliads do.

Bromeliads can spend the summer outside in the garden, but need to come in when the weather turns cold. I had a beautiful bromeliad in my outside garden this summer. I learned the hard way how they don't like direct sun. After being in the sun for about a week, the leaves of my bromeliad got sunburned. I moved the plant into a shadier place, and it grew fine. When the cold weather hit, I moved my bromeliad into the house where it continued to flower for a few more weeks. After one season of blooming the mature plant will die. But in the pot you will notice several new plants. The new ones are called pups. This is the time to transplant those and you will have a new batch of bromeliads that will bloom next year. Don't worry if you don't see many roots on these new offshoots. These plants have reservoirs located in their leaf bases for water, so they don't need roots. The roots of bromeliads are like the roots of the tillandsia, their main function is to help hold the plant in place.

Water bromeliads once a week. Most bromeliads have a small cup-like formation located in the center of the plant. Unlike traditional watering, to water bromeliads, you fill this cup. Fill the cup to overflowing and keep it full at all times. This is also where you would put liquid fertilizer.

Jackie Albarella is a lifelong Gardenville resident and gardener and the host of Gardening For Real People seen Saturdays at 11AM on WNGS-TV. For more gardening information and tips, visit www.gardeningforrealpeople.com.

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