Carol Ann Harlos

Tillandsias

by cathym on November 3, 2020

Story and photos by Carol Ann Harlos

You probably have heard of “air plants,” or tillandsias. Tillandsias naturally grow in drier areas of the southern U.S. to parts of South America.  You may have seen “Spanish moss” growing on trees (thus the term “epiphytic” meaning “on a plant”) in Florida or purchased some for use in wreath making.   Spanish moss is not really a moss but one of the many species of tillandsias. Spanish moss, like all tillandsias, loves humidity and grows tiny flowers since it is an angiosperm.  Tillandsias are bromeliads (related to pineapples) and are also monocots related to grasses and lilies.  Tillandsias are unique as they only open their stomates (leaf pores) at night to release oxygen, the byproduct of photosynthesis. This prevents water loss that would occur in the heat of the sun. At this time they also pick up the carbon dioxide necessary for photosynthesis occurring in the daytime. 

There are hundreds tillandsias that can grow without soil and require just the barest minimum of care.  Tillandsias absorb water through their leaves through hair-like structures called trichomes. Those commonly grown in homes are often called “aerophytes,” as they seem to live on air. The form of all tillandisas is really some type of rosette made up of overlapping leaves which accumulate dust particles. In a home these might include skin cells, hair, pet dander, bacteria, dust mites, bits of dead bugs, soil particles, and pollen. These make up the nourishment needed by the plants. The minute roots serve as anchors instead of absorbing water.  (This is important as I have met people who killed their tillandsias because they soaked the roots which subsequently rotted!)  I have tillandsias in both north and south windows. They thrive in both. The light is bright and the temperature changes little, which makes them quite happy.

The pictures included in this article are some of the author’s tillandsias. The one tucked into a sea urchin shell. Tillandsia harrisii, which originated in Guatemala, has doubled in size since it was purchased. It lives on a shelf in a northern window.

The T. ionantha ball is made of several tillandsias wired together. The ball thrives in the south window of a bathroom. Since I love warm showers I rarely water them. Several of the plants in the ball have flowered, a thrill to the author! In Guatemala the bright red flowers attract hummingbirds leading to pollination and seed formation. Since tillandsias are not self-fertile, this did not occur in my home.  Only mature plants flower. Pups (offshoots) form at the base of the “mother” plant after blooming finishes. The offspring then are clones of the parent plant.

T. ionantha ball with one plant in bloom

T. caput x brachycaulos, T. caput-medusae, and their crosses are often called “octopus plants” or “medusa’s head.”  They have rather thick, twisted leaves that grow from a “pseudobulb”… it looks like a bulb but isn’t.  It is said to bloom red. Mine have yet to bloom.

T. caput-medusae
T. caput-medusae x brachycaulos

T. tectorum is native to Ecuador and Peru. In nature it is found on cliff faces. This tillandsia has a more open form than the ones mentioned above. I find it needs less care than the other tillandsias, probably because it had to adapt to a tough dry sunny environment in the wild.  They seem to thrive in direct light in my home and require far less water to survive.  

T. tectorum ‘Peru’

Although Tillandsias are easy-care plants, all tillandsias don’t require the same care so pay attention to how the plants look … shrunken, browning, losing leaves, or firm. Some plants are thin, others fleshy. This affects their need for water.  I soak my Tillandsias in a bowl of water periodically for a few minutes or run tap water over them. If your tillandsias look shrunken simply soak them longer. Some people use dechlorinated water but I never have.  Take your cue from your tillandsias as you would any other plants. When I think of it I use a very dilute fertilizer in the water. That’s it!  

Many people place tillandsias in glass jars by themselves as they are architecturally intriguing. It is easier to simply mist these once in a while since putting them directly in water may be inconvenient. I have also seen tillandsias tucked into a pot containing entirely different types of plants simply for adding interest.

Carol Ann Harlos is an Erie County Master Gardener.

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What to do in the garden in November & December

by cathym on November 2, 2020

OUTDOORS
It seems that gardening is never finished, but would we want it to be any different? 

Protect carrots and other root crops, such as parsnips. with straw to keep the ground around them from freezing. After mowing your lawn for the last time, have blades cleaned and sharpened now for a head start on spring. Drain and store garden hoses and turn off outside water spigots. If you haven’t cleaned your garden tools, do it now. Don’t forget to disinfect and sharpen your tools as well. Sharpened pruners, hoes and shovels make work much easier next spring.

Finish any necessary garden cleanup you still haven’t completed. Be sure to remove and discard any plant material that was diseased. Leave up perennial seed heads up to become nature’s bird feeders. Leave hollow stemmed plants to act as winter homes for overwintering insects.

You can still plant spring-flowering bulbs until the ground freezes so hurry up as time is awastin’.

If you’ve moved or planted any trees, shrubs, or perennials they will need adequate moisture. Water deeply anytime there is less than one inch of rain per week, until the soil reaches 40 degrees F.

Protect plants from winter and critter damage. Continue watering until the earth freezes. Once the soil is frozen put protective mulch over tender perennials and shrubs. Discarded pine boughs or mulched leaves make good mulches. Use burlap or shrub coats to protect susceptible shrubs from winter wind and deer damage. If you have critter problems now is the time to erect fencing and other barriers. The trunks of young trees can be wrapped with trunk wraps or chicken wire to protect them from the nibbling of mice and rabbits and rubbing by deer. Be sure the protection goes high enough so critters don’t sit on top of the snow to browse. Plan to keep off frozen grass to prevent soil compaction and poor drainage.

Erect teepees to protect foundation plants from breakage when snow and ice slip off the roof.

Keep removing weeds (burdock for example…yikes!) as long as you can see them…otherwise they will have a head start next spring!

To reduce the amount of water that broad-leafed evergreens like rhododendrons lose during the winter, you can spray the foliage with a wax-forming antidesiccant or erect barriers against the wind to prevent “windburn,” a form of desiccation.

Got outdoor fish? Use netting to prevent leaves from falling in and depleting oxygen.

Do you have grafted roses? If you didn’t mulch over the graft union get out there and do it now!

Roses can bloom well into November, but make sure to mulch above the union of grafted plants. Photo by Jane Milliman

Mound five to six inches of soil around the bases of roses to protect them from a freeze-thaw cycle which is harmful. Use soil from another part of the garden so you don’t damage the roots of your roses by digging near them.

Check stored firewood for insect infestations. Remember not to use or move firewood from out of your area to help prevent the spread of invasive insects like the Emerald Ash Borer and Spotted Lanternfly.

Have a broom ready to knock snow off plants before it freezes and causes damage.

INDOORS
Houseplants need a winter rest, too. Reduce the fertilization of most indoor plants from late October to mid-March. An exception might be plants under grow lights.

Keep your houseplants on the dry side to discourage fungus gnat larvae from devouring the roots. Watering from the bottom helps. Watch for insects or disease and take appropriate action before they spread.

Water house plants with tepid water. How would you like a cold bath?

Move most houseplants away from very cold windows to avoid damage. Begonias seem to like cool windows, though.

Continue to add kitchen plant scraps to the compost bin. 

HOLIDAY PLANTS
Be sure to remove foil or other wrapping from around the pots of plants you may receive as gifts so proper drainage can occur.

Plant amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus bulbs now. Paperwhites can go into your compost after blooming. Amaryllis flowers can be cut off after blooming is complete. Keep the plants in light and watered so the leaves can refurbish the bulb. Keep leaves growing until the leaves die down on their own. They will begin regrowth when they are ready to bloom again.

Select poinsettias with green leaves and colorful bracts. Keep in bright light away from pets, children, drafts, and direct heat. 

Start cuttings of your favorite Christmas cactus (or Easter or Thanksgiving). Make a cutting with four or five joints. Let dry for about three days. Insert the basal end into a pot of dampened vermiculite. Place in a brightly lit area. Rooting should occur in three to four weeks.

When selecting a live Christmas tree, check the needles. You should be able to bend them. If they snap the tree is too dry. Try lifting the tree a few inches and bringing it down on the stump. Some inside needles may fall but outer needles should not drop off. Make a fresh cut across the base of the trunk to prevent the formation of a seal which prevents the tree from taking up water, and immediately place it in water. If you plan to have a live tree for the holidays, dig the hole for the tree now before the ground freezes. It’s best to only keep the potted tree inside for one week then plant it outside.

MISCELLANEOUS
Feed the birds sunflower and black nyjer seeds. Be sure to keep feeders clean and dry to promote bird health rather than bird disease.

Use hairspray on seed heads and dried flowers in wreaths or other displays.

Give gardening hints to family and friends so they buy you gardening gifts (or buy them for both friends and yourself). Ideas: books, clippers, butterfly kits, mason bee homes, terrariums, orchids, perhaps beekeeping equipment.

Purchase gifts at local nurseries and garden-related not-for-profits like the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens.

Give others as well as yourself memberships in the Botanical Gardens, Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, Xerces, or Reinstein Woods.

—Carol Ann Harlos and Lyn Chimera, Master Gardeners, Erie County

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Rhododendron

THE GARDEN
We gardeners have been waiting for spring. However, during May, PATIENCE is the rule. A common problem is planting too soon. If the soil is too cold or wet seeds may rot and roots may stop growing. 

Soil temperature should be above 50 F. If soil feels cold in your hand, it’s too cold for plants! Try making a ball with a handful of soil. Does it crumble? Great. Does it form a ball? It’s too wet.

Purchase compact, healthy plants with unopened buds that are appropriate for your gardens. Read plant tags and note the final height and width. Are they appropriate for your space? Mix compost, or other organic materials into the soil before planting. Mulch lightly around the new plants.

Planting holes should be a deep as the root mass and twice as wide. Be sure to spread or “spider” the roots to encourage root growth into the soil instead of circling, self-strangling roots which can lead to disaster.

Leave bulb foliage intact until it yellows and wilts, but remove spent flowers to prevent seed formation. The foliage is required to give bulbs the food necessary to form next year’s blooms. Spring bulbs can be moved or divided as soon as the foliage dies. Do the same for bearded irises so the energy goes into the rhizomes. Divide Virginia bluebells, bloodroot, trilliums, and other spring ephemerals when the leaves turn yellow and before they disappear from sight. 

Weeding never ends. Mulching helps. Plant warm-season annuals by mid-June, before it gets too hot for them to establish good roots. These include cosmos, marigolds, begonias, torenias, petunias, ageratum, and cleome.

Check for signs of insects (chewed leaves, puncture wounds, sticky substances, trails in leaves) or disease (yellow leaves, stunted growth, signs of fungi). Be sure to look on both sides of the leaves before buying any plant. Don’t forget to check for healthy roots. Slug control can start as soon as you can get into the garden. Take a look on top and under the leaves of tomato, potato, pepper, and eggplants for hornworm eggs (only one-tenth of an inch in diameter). Yellow trails in columbine leaves are caused by leaf miners, the larva of a genus of fly. This is more of an aesthetic problem … you don’t have to do anything OR you can remove the affected leaves.

Buy yourself at least one new plant! Consider some native plant species to help pollinators and to feed young birds. Keep newly planted trees, shrubs, vegetables, perennials, and flowers well-watered (about one inch per week.)

Try deer repellants or consider deer resistant plants. Check the Cornell website for a great deer resistant plant list. 

Cut back spring-flowering perennials such as pulmonaria and perennial geraniums after they bloom to encourage reblooming and/or growth of new foliage. Deadhead perennials and annuals to prevent seed formation and to encourage new growth and more flowers.

At the end of June, cut back perennials such as phlox, beebalm, sedum, aster, and goldenrod by one-third to one-half to control height or delay flowering. This is known as the Chelsea Chop.

Place supports over taller flowering plants so the plants can grow up through them without damage to foliage and flowers later in the season.

Spring-blooming shrubs like weigela, forsythias, and spirea can be pruned back after blooming. Cut about one-third of the oldest stems to the ground for renovation.

If growing azaleas and/or rhododendrons in higher pH soil be sure to add acidifying agents. However, don’t disturb the roots.

THE LAWN
Mow lawn at least three inches high. This encourages deeper, healthier root growth. Leave grass clippings on the lawn to return nutrients to the soil.

The first application of lawn fertilizer, if needed, can be put down around Memorial Day. If fertilizer was applied in the fall a spring application is not necessary. A quarter to a half inch top dressing of compost adds nutrients, feeds soil microbes, and improves the water-holding capacity of the soil. 

For optimal pre-emergent crabgrass control, do not apply until soil is close to 60 degrees. Crabgrass doesn’t germinate until the soil temperature 2 inches deep is between 60 & 64 degrees. Applying when the ground is too cold is a waste of money and chemicals.

VEGETABLES
Check the Cornell recommended vegetable list for suggested and disease resistant varieties. vegvariety.cce.cornell.edu

Plant your brassicas now: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and summer cabbage. Reseed bush beans every few weeks to increase production.

Plant your tomatoes, eggplant, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, and peppers when the ground is warm to promote root growth. Usually this time comes closer to the end of May.

After direct-sowing seeds, be sure to thin the seedlings to prevent crowding and competition for light, water, and fertilizer. If plants were grown from seed be sure to harden them off before planting them in the garden.

—Carol Ann Harlos and Lyn Chimera, Master Gardeners, Erie County


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