For the better part of a year I worked with Bobbi Peckarsky and the Rocky Mountain Institute, identifying aquatic insect species to assess stream water quality. The type of species and amount of a particular species within a given area are excellent bioindicators for stream health. For instance, if you have a ton of little Culicidae (mosquito) or bulbous Tipulidae (crane fly) larvae and little else, it would indicate to you that the stream you're surveying, and likely the corresponding area, was of poor environmental health.
Tillandsia or air plants, as they are commonly called, are members of the Bromeliaceae family, and can be used as the terrestrial equivalents to aquatic insects. Because of their epiphytic nature, they need no soil, as all their water and nutrients are absorbed through the specialized trichomes, which are scale-like hairs on their leaves. In fact, it's these scales on the surface, which can act a little like dust collectors, grabbing hold of droplets of water, the dust that the water formed around, and any dissolved salts. Because of this quality, scientists often use Tillandsia to test atmospheric quality across its range. Heavy metals can accumulate in the tissues of the plant, and also in turn, affect the health of the plant.
I wouldn't expect that type of air pollution in one's home, but this little knowledge just shows you how efficient air plants are at "capturing" volatile pollutants. For those that are more scientifically-inclined, you can even go so far as to biomonitor your home. Most of us I suspect, however, would be just happy to know that the air plants we have, are helping purify our air. This is just one good reason why making an installation of air plants is a good move in one's living quarters. The second being, of course, that they're an absolutely stunning edition to one's plant collection.
Tillandsias, generally speaking, prefer bright light conditions, but their foliage can help you determine a more precise lighting requirement. For instance, thicker, gray-leaved varieties prefer bright light, whereas the greenish, softer-leaved varieties prefer a little less sun. Most Tillandsias that you can buy for your home prefer humid conditions. If you have a drier home environment, like most of us do—at least in the Northeast, get a spray bottle and spray your air plants. It's challenging to say how many times to spray them because it really depends on the home environment, but typically 2-3 times a week is adequate. Additionally, I like to "bathe" mine for around 30-45 minutes on a biweekly basis (preferably lukewarm water or water that has been sitting out for a few hours). This simply means "dunking" them in water and then thoroughly drying them out afterwards. Wet air plants will slowly rot, so I'd suggest thoroughly shaking them off or even placing them near a fan or an open window with a breeze to increase air flow. If the air plant is in bloom, then try not to get the flower wet. Instead, just spray the plant, or carefully dunk it in a container filled with water without letting the bloom touch.
Speaking of being in bloom, Tillandia, just like their Bromeliad cousins, only bloom once. During this time, the plant is putting more energy into its bloom and the production of new “pups” or offsets, so be sure to water the air plant a little more than usual, or at least keep the humidity up. Once the pups are ⅓-½ the size of the mother plant, then they can be removed and displayed how you see fit.
Some of the popular ways to display air plants in the home are on wood mounts or in glass bulbs. Glass bulbs are chosen, not only for their aesthetics, but also because they help maintain humidity around the plant.
Some of the popular ways to display air plants in the home are on wood mounts or in glass bulbs. Glass bulbs are chosen, not only for their aesthetics, but also because they help maintain humidity around the plant. 🌿