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Tillandsia fasciculata.jpg
Tillandsia fasciculata
Scientific classification OOjs UI icon edit-ltr.svg
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Monocots
Clade: Commelinids
Order: Poales
Family: Bromeliaceae
Subfamily: Tillandsioideae
Genus: Tillandsia

Over 650 species

Synonyms [1]
  • AcanthosporaSpreng.
  • Allardtia
  • DiaphoranthemaBeer
  • PhytarrhizaVis.
  • PityrophyllumBeer
  • PlatystachysK.Koch
  • RacinaeaM.A.Spencer & L.B.Sm.
  • ×RacindsiaTakiz.
  • RenealmiaL.
  • StrepsiaSteud.
  • ViridanthaEspejo
  • Wallisia(Regel) E.Morren

Tillandsia is a genus of around 650 species of evergreen, perennial flowering plants in the family Bromeliaceae, native to the forests, mountains and deserts of the Neotropics, from northern Mexico and the southeastern United States to Mesoamerica and the Caribbean to central Argentina. Their leaves, more or less silvery in color, are covered with specialized cells (trichomes) capable of rapidly absorbing water that gathers on them. [2]


They are also commonly known as air plants because they are epiphytes, not needing soil for nourishment. They have a natural propensity to cling to whatever surfaces are readily available: telephone wires, tree branches, bark, bare rocks, etc. Their light seeds and a silky parachute facilitate their spread. [3] Most Tillandsia species are epiphytes – which translates to 'upon a plant'. [4] Some are aerophytes, which have a minimal root system and grow on shifting desert soil. Due to their epiphytic way of life, these plants will not grow in soil but live on the branches of trees, in deserts and on other substrates that will not be saturated with water for very long. [5]


Tillandsia stricta Tillandsia stricta 2.jpg
Tillandsia stricta

Tillandsia are perennial herbaceous plants which exhibit a multitude of physiological and morphological differences making this a diverse genus. Having native habitats that vary from being epiphytic and saxicolous, species have certain adaptations, such as root systems designed to anchor to other plants or substrates, and modified trichomes for water and nutrient intake. Some of the species, like the majority of Bromeliaceae, grow as funnel bromeliads, with a compressed stem axis. The leaves are then close together in rosettes, and cover the lower areas of the leaves, forming a funnel for collecting water. [2]

These leaf rosettes, a common physical characteristic in Tillandsia species, collect nutrients and water. The flowers typically involve bright, vibrant colors, with blooms or inflorescences produced on a stalk or several stalks. [6] The flower's color varies greatly; red, yellow, purple and pink flowers exist in this genus, and multicolored flowers are known. The bright colors attract pollinators. An air plant's foliage may also change color when it blooms, also attracting pollinators. The hermaphrodite flowers are threefold with double perianth. The three free sepals are symmetrical and pointed. The seeds have a "parachute" similar to the dandelion. [7]

Common pollinators of this genus include moths, hummingbirds and, more recently recognized, bats. [8]

Two reference genomes for Tillandsia have been released in 2023, together with chromosome numbers 2n=50 for T. fasciculata and 2n=38 for T. leiboldiana. [9]


The genus Tillandsia was named by Carl Linnaeus after the Swedish physician and botanist Elias Tillandz (originally Tillander) (1640–1693). Some common types of Tillandsia include ball moss (T. recurvata) and Spanish moss (T. usneoides). The genus contains around 650 species, where 635 are considered epiphytic. [2] Tillandsia was traditionally divided into seven subgenera: [10]

In a more recent (2016) classification, the following subgenera are recognized: [11]

Four species are protected under CITES II: [12]


Tillandsia xerographica in its natural habitat in El Salvador near Los Cobanos beach Tillandsia xerographica (TS) 2-06882.jpg
Tillandsia xerographica in its natural habitat in El Salvador near Los Cobanos beach

Tillandsia have naturally been established in diverse environments such as equatorial tropical rain forests, high elevation Andes mountains, rock dwelling (saxicolous) regions, and Louisiana swamps, such as Spanish moss (T. usneoides), a species that grows atop tree limbs. However, there are also species that are lithophytic (growing in or on rocks, though this can also stretch to living on roofs or even telephone wires). Its native range is Tropical & Subtropical America. [13]

Green-leaved species of Tillandsia generally live in cool-to-humid climates, in areas of terrestrial shade or the lower levels of a forest. [14] In contrast, almost all gray-leaved species live in precipitation-poor areas with high humidity. They prefer the full sun and can therefore be found in the upper floors of the woods, on rocks or (rarely) on the ground. Many of the gray species are epiphytes. Some species are more or less xeromorphic. [15]


Species of Tillandsia photosynthesize through a process called CAM cycle, where they close their stomata during the day to prevent water loss and open them at night to fix carbon dioxide and release oxygen. [16] This allows them to preserve water, necessary because they are epiphytes. They do not have a functional root system and instead absorb water in small amounts through their leaves via small structures called trichomes. Species of Tillandsia also absorb their nutrients from debris and dust in the air. [17]

Any root system found on Tillandsia has grown to act as a fragile stabilizing scaffold to grip the surface they grow on. As soon as they have been soaked with water, the green assimilation tissue below the suction scales becomes visible again, the plant is therefore "greened". Now the plant can absorb more light. When the sun dries the plants, they turn white. Thanks to this special survival trick, plants without roots can absorb fog droplets as well as rainwater and thus cover their water needs. [18]

More than one-third of a tropical forest's vascular plants are Tillandsia[ dubious ]. Their contribution to the environment's carrying capacity allows for terrestrial fauna like earthworms to thrive in the treetops. [19]

Temperature is not critical, the range being from 10 to 32 °C (50 to 90 °F). Frost hardiness depends on the species. T. usneoides, for example, can tolerate night-time frosts down to about −10 °C (14 °F). For most species, the ideal growth temperature is between 20 and 25 °C (68 and 77 °F), with a minimum of 10 °C (50 °F) and a maximum of 30 °C (86 °F). Few are resistant to −10 °C (14 °F), but some, usually from higher elevation areas, are hardy enough to withstand light and brief freezes and live outdoors year round in areas with mild winters. [20]


Bathing Tillandsia Bathing tillandsia.jpg
Bathing Tillandsia
Tillandsia argentea Tillandsia argentea.jpg
Tillandsia argentea

Tillandsias, like other bromeliads, can multiply through pollination and seed formation. Since Tillandsia are not self-fertile, the pollen must come from another plant of the same species. Tillandsia, depending on the species, may take months or years to flower. After flowering, the plant forms offsets and dies. [21]

Generally, the thinner-leafed varieties grow in rainy areas and the thick-leafed varieties in areas more subject to drought. Most species absorb moisture and nutrients through the leaves from rain, dew, dust, decaying leaves and insect matter, aided by structures called trichomes. [22] Air plants are growing rapidly in popularity as a low maintenance household plant. Due to their minimal root system and other adaptations, they generally do not require frequent watering, no more than four times a week, allowing the plant to completely dry before watering again. [23]

The amount of light required depends on the species; overall, air plants with silver dusting and stiff foliage will require more sunlight than air plants with softer foliage. They generally need a strong light. In summer outside, however, they prefer the light shade of a tree at the hottest hours. Plants are commonly seen mounted, placed in a terrarium, or simply placed in seashells as decorative pieces. [24] For so-called "aerial" species (the majority of the common species in culture except Tillandsia cyanea ), that is to say those whose roots are transformed into crampons without any power of absorption, watering is done by the leaves in the form of frequent sprays, or brief soaking of the plant in a container full of water. [25] Non-calcareous water is recommended. [26]

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Epiphyte</span> Non-parasitic surface organism that grows upon another plant but is not nourished by it

An epiphyte is a plant or plant-like organism that grows on the surface of another plant and derives its moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, water or from debris accumulating around it. The plants on which epiphytes grow are called phorophytes. Epiphytes take part in nutrient cycles and add to both the diversity and biomass of the ecosystem in which they occur, like any other organism. They are an important source of food for many species. Typically, the older parts of a plant will have more epiphytes growing on them. Epiphytes differ from parasites in that they grow on other plants for physical support and do not necessarily affect the host negatively. An organism that grows on another organism that is not a plant may be called an epibiont. Epiphytes are usually found in the temperate zone or in the tropics. Epiphyte species make good houseplants due to their minimal water and soil requirements. Epiphytes provide a rich and diverse habitat for other organisms including animals, fungi, bacteria, and myxomycetes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bromeliaceae</span> Family of monocot flowering plants

The Bromeliaceae are a family of monocot flowering plants of about 80 genera and 3700 known species, native mainly to the tropical Americas, with several species found in the American subtropics and one in tropical west Africa, Pitcairnia feliciana.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Spanish moss</span> Species of plant, Tillandsia usneoides

Spanish moss is an epiphytic flowering plant that often grows upon large trees in tropical and subtropical climates. It is native to much of Mexico, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Central America, South America, the Southern United States, and West Indies. It has been naturalized in Queensland (Australia). It is known as "grandpa's beard" in French Polynesia.

<i>Brocchinia reducta</i> Species of carnivorous plant

Brocchinia reducta is one of a few carnivorous bromeliads. It is native to southern Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, and Guyana, and is found in nutrient-poor soil. B. reducta adapts to different environments, when growing on rocks it uses its roots as anchors.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lithophyte</span> Plants that grow on rocks

Lithophytes are plants that grow in or on rocks. They can be classified as either epilithic or endolithic; epilithic lithophytes grow on the surfaces of rocks, while endolithic lithophytes grow in the crevices of rocks. Lithophytes can also be classified as being either obligate or facultative. Obligate lithophytes grow solely on rocks, while facultative lithophytes will grow partially on a rock and on another substrate simultaneously.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aerial root</span> Root which grows above the ground

Aerial roots are roots above the ground. They are almost always adventitious. They are found in diverse plant species, including epiphytes such as orchids (Orchidaceae), tropical coastal swamp trees such as mangroves, banyan figs, the warm-temperate rainforest rata, and pohutukawa trees of New Zealand. Vines such as common ivy and poison ivy also have aerial roots.

<i>Brocchinia</i> Genus of carnivorous plants

Brocchinia is a genus of the botanical family Bromeliaceae, and is the sole genus of the subfamily Brocchinioideae, containing 20 species. The genus is named for Giovanni Battista Brocchi, Italian naturalist (1772–1826). Brocchinia species are native primarily to the ancient Guayana Shield in southern Venezuela and Guyana, with some species extending into Colombia and northern Brazil. Its species are generally restricted to areas of sand and sandstone of the Roraima Formation; a few occur on granite.

<i>Catopsis berteroniana</i> Species of carnivorous plant

Catopsis berteroniana, commonly known as the powdery strap airplant or the lantern of the forest, is an epiphytic bromeliad thought to be a possible carnivorous plant, similar to Brocchinia reducta, although the evidence is equivocal. Its native range is from southern Florida to southern Brazil. It generally grows on the unshaded twigs of trees, and has been shown experimentally to trap more insects in its tank than other bromeliads of comparable size. There are several other species in the genus, none of which is believed to be carnivorous.

<i>Neoregelia</i> Genus of flowering plants

Neoregelia is a genus of epiphytic flowering plants in the family Bromeliaceae, subfamily Bromelioideae, native to South American rainforests. The genus name is for Eduard August von Regel, Director of St. Petersburg Botanic Gardens in Russia (1875–1892).

<i>Billbergia</i> Genus of flowering plants

Billbergia is a genus of flowering plants in the family Bromeliaceae, subfamily Bromelioideae.

<i>Tillandsia recurvata</i> Species of epiphyte

Tillandsia recurvata, commonly known as small ballmoss or ball moss, is a flowering plant in the family Bromeliaceae that grows upon larger host plants. It grows well in areas with low light, little airflow, and high humidity, which is commonly provided by southern shade trees, often the southern live oak. It is not a parasite like mistletoe, but an epiphyte like its relative Spanish moss.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tillandsioideae</span> Subfamily of family Bromeliaceae

Tillandsioideae is a subfamily of plants in the bromeliad family Bromeliaceae. This subfamily contains the greatest number of species. Most are epiphytic or lithophytic, growing in trees or on rocks where they absorb water and nutrients from the air. Spanish moss of the genus Tillandsia is a well-known species. Bromeliads in the genera Guzmania and Vriesea are the more commonly cultivated members of this subfamily.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Protocarnivorous plant</span> Carnivorous plant that can not digest prey

A protocarnivorous plant, according to some definitions, traps and kills insects or other animals but lacks the ability to either directly digest or absorb nutrients from its prey like a carnivorous plant. The morphological adaptations such as sticky trichomes or pitfall traps of protocarnivorous plants parallel the trap structures of confirmed carnivorous plants.

<i>Tillandsia caput-medusae</i> Species of flowering plant

Tillandsia caput-medusae is a species of flowering plant in the bromeliad family, Bromeliaceae, subfamily Tillandsioideae. Common names include octopus plant and medusa's head. An epiphyte native to Central America and Mexico, T. caput-medusae is a commonly cultivated bromeliad species. The thick, channeled, tapering and twisting leaves are up to 25 cm (9.8 in) long and are covered in fine gray hairs. The rosette of leaves arise from an inflated pseudobulb. Pups are produced after blooming, as is usual with most Tillandsia species.

<i>Tillandsia <span style="font-style:normal;">subg.</span> Diaphoranthema</i> Subgenus of flowering plants

Diaphoranthema is a subgenus of the genus Tillandsia.

<i>Tillandsia ionantha</i> Species of plant

Tillandsia ionantha, the air plant, is a species of plant in the genus Tillandsia. This species is native to Central America and Mexico. It is also reportedly naturalized in Broward County, Florida.

<i>Tillandsia paucifolia</i>

Tillandsia paucifolia, the potbelly airplant, is a species of bromeliad in the genus Tillandsia. This species is native to Central America, central and southern Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, the West Indies, and Florida.

<i>Tillandsia schiedeana</i> Species of plant

Tillandsia schiedeana is a species of flowering plant in the genus Tillandsia. It was named for the collector Christian Julius Wilhelm Schiede. As an epiphyte it is found "growing in open tropical forests, and saxicolous, growing on cacti and burseras on steep dry slopes in semiarid regions in Mexico, Central America, West Indies, Venezuela, and Colombia at elevations of 750 to 5,500 feet."

<i>Tillandsia variabilis</i> Species of plant

Tillandsia variabilis, the leatherleaf airplant, is a species of bromeliad in the genus Tillandsia. This species is native to Bolivia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, the West Indies and southern Florida.

<i>Tillandsia kammii</i> Species of plant

Tillandsia kammii is a species in the genus Tillandsia that is native to Honduras, but has also been collected in El Salvador. It was first discovered in Honduras in 1977 in the regions of Olancho, Lempira and Copan. Its common name is Kamm's tillandsia.


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