By Rob Sproule
“All we need, really, is a change from a near frigid to a tropical attitude of mind.”
– Marjory Stoneman Douglas
Let’s start with some myth busting: air plants can’t live on air alone. That being said, they’ve been the name on everyone’s lips. Tillandsia epitomize modern gardening. They’re versatile, live by their own rules, and are flat-out gorgeous. When it comes to design, the Xerographica is their king.
Native to Mexico, Xerographica is a slow grower characterized by its mossy silver leaves and spherical outline. It’s name derives from the Greek xeros (“dry”) and graphia (“writing”). Growing without soil (epiphytically), you’ll find it hanging from the highest branches in subtropical forests.
Its look is distinctive, even among the fascinating Tillandsia genus. As it grows, its curled leaves will spiral in on itself and its overall size will be slow to change. If conditions are right it may send up a large, slow growing flower spike that will develop into a bloom. While the spike dies when the flower does (best to snip it off). The red and purple flowers aren’t striking on their own, but the spike is architecturally gorgeous and lasts for months.
Blooming is when the plant may develop “pups” along the base. Let them grow to about a third the size of the mother plant then gently remove them for more Xeros (or you can leave them on to let your mother plant just get cooler).
All air plants like bright, diffused light. That means well-windowed room but not pushed up against a south/west window or the UV will burn it. They will tolerate fluorescent light if it must, but won’t thrive and will pine for something natural.
Xerographica like less water than the green leafed tropical air plants. A misting a couple times a week is plenty. If it lives in a bathroom or above the kitchen sink, misting probably isn’t necessary. About every month, soak it completely for 2 minutes in lukewarm water. Turn upside down and gently shake it dry (you don’t want water sitting in the crevices). You’ll need to water it more or less depending on how dry your air is.
If it needs more water, its curled leaves will tighten up like its had a perm. Then they will wrinkle as it really starts to suffer. If it’s getting too much water, its curls will open up. If you keep watering too much past that point, it will start to rot from the core and eventually perish. You don’t need to fertilize. It’s system is so sensitive that it’s easily burnt.
The Xero’s striking shape has made it the darling of florists and designers. It blends beautifully into everything from wedding bouquets (where its spherical shape catches the eye) to tabletop centrepieces with mosses and cut flowers around it.
Design wise, air plants are raw material. They aren’t like orchids that you just bring home and plunk on the window sill. Incorporate them into terrariums, glue them onto driftwood or other untreated surfaces, or weave them into air plant frames as living art.