Air plant care cheat sheet

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Trichomes growing on air plants can look like white fuzz

Trichomes – the White/Silver Fuzz Growing on Air Plants

What is the white, silver, or gray fuzz growing on your air plants? The tiny hair-like structures are called Folair Trichomes. Trichomes look like small crystals or scales and grow on the leaves and bodies of all species of Tillandsia. They enable air plants to absorb water and nutrients from the surrounding air.

Typically ‘mesic’ types of air plants are covered in fewer trichomes than their ‘xeric’ cousins. Xeric types often have an abundance of trichomes that give the plants a white, silver, or gray appearance. The abundance of trichomes helps some species to reflect direct sunlight enabling them to live in arid or desert regions.

Why Are My Air Plants Turning White?

Air plants are known for their unique appearance, yet it can be disconcerting when they start turning white or a strange silver or gray fuzz starts growing on the plant’s leaves. The change of color or fuzz can be alarming for new Tillandsia owners as it may look like a fungal infection to the untrained eye. However, in most cases, these changes are harmless and likely a natural characteristic and sign of healthy air plants.

Foliar trichomes on an air plant

The change of color is most likely due to the growth of thousands of tiny trichomes that gradually appear on the body and leaves of your air plants as they mature. The number and spread of trichomes varies from species to species. Some Tillandsia are completely covered in trichomes from head to toe giving them an almost ghost-like appearance, whilst others appear to have no trichomes at all.

This stunning Tillandsia Tectorum is a wonderful example of what xeric air plants can look like …

Species - Tillandsia Tectorum

Tillandsia Tectorum is covered in thousands of hair-like structures whereas Tillandsia Ionantha Mexican (shown below) looks like it’s covered in tiny scales. Ionantha Mexican is a mesic type of air plant that grows in wetter and more shaded environments hence it doesn’t need as many trichomes.

Hybrid - Tillandsia Ionantha Mexican

Understanding Trichomes On Air Plants

It’s essential to understand the role of trichomes in your air plant’s overall health, as it can impact how you care for them. For example, air plants with a denser covering of trichomes may require more sunlight and less frequent watering. By learning more about trichomes and their functions, you’ll be better equipped to provide your air plants with the care they need to flourish.

The Benefits Of Trichomes

Trichomes are tiny, hair or scale-like structures that grow on the epidermis, or outer layer, of a plant’s leaves. These specialized cells play a crucial role in your air plant’s survival as they enable your plants to receive essential nutrients and water without needing soil or a traditional root system.

The word trichome is derived from the Greek word ‘trikhoma’ which means to cover with hair.

Long hair-like trichomes

Trichomes serve three main functions …

  • They assist plants in the process of photosynthesis by absorbing carbon dioxide from the air while releasing oxygen
  • They help plants to collect, absorb, and retain moisture from their environment
  • They help plants to collect and absorb nutrients from their environment.

Since air plants are epiphytes, meaning they grow on other plants without harming them, their trichomes not only help them absorb water and minerals but also regulate their temperature and protect them from strong sunlight. By covering the surfaces of air plant leaves, trichomes also form a barrier that prevents rapid loss of moisture, ensuring that your plants maintain a proper balance between water intake and evaporation.

Wet trichomes shown after watering

To ensure proper care, white and silver-colored air plants with abundant trichomes usually require more light and can go longer without being watered/soaked compared to air plants with fewer trichomes.

Harmful Fungi

Trichomes are typically a sign of healthy, happy plants, and whilst beneficial and natural, it is essential to keep an eye out for potential issues related to harmful fungi.

Fungal infections can sometimes present themselves as white or silvery fuzz on the leaves of air plants. These fungi can damage your plants by hindering their ability to absorb water and nutrients properly.

To differentiate between beneficial trichomes and potentially harmful fungi, observe the growth patterns and overall health of your air plants. Trichomes should be evenly distributed across the surface of the leaves, giving them a uniform silvery or white appearance. If the fuzz is patchy and/or slimy and affects the plant’s health, it might be a sign of a fungal infection.

Air plant care cheat sheet

Tillandsia With Abundant White, Silver, Or Grey Fuzz

As discussed, some Tillandsia species have more abundant trichomes giving them a distinct white, silver, or grey appearance. These species usually originate from xeric (dry) environments, where they need to absorb more moisture to endure drought conditions.

Thousands of tiny trichomes

Here are some examples of Tillandsia known for their abundant trichomes:

  • Tillandsia Tectorum – Known for its dense covering of trichomes, this species has a fuzzy, silver-white appearance, making it an eye-catching addition to any air plant collection.
  • Tillandsia Xerographica – Often referred to as the ‘Queen of Air Plants’ this species has large, curled leaves covered in trichomes, which adds to its stunning, silvery-grey hue.
  • Tillandsia Ionantha – Although not all Ionantha varieties have a prominent fuzz, some of them, like ‘Fuego’ and ‘Druid’ have a noticeable silver sheen due to their abundance of trichomes.
  • Tillandsia Didisticha – This air plant has long, flat leaves with a silvery appearance caused by the layer of trichomes – an ideal choice for adding texture to your air plant display.

To ensure the health of your trichome-rich Tillandsia it’s essential to provide them with proper care. Please keep your plants in a well-ventilated area with bright, indirect light. When it’s time to water, fully submerge them for about 20-30 minutes, then gently shake off any excess water, and let them dry completely before returning them to their display or home. Xeric plants should be soaked once every 7-10 days.

Tillandsia With Less Visible Trichomes

Some Tillandsia species have less visible or unnoticeable trichomes making them appear greener and smoother in comparison to their more fuzzy counterparts. In these species, the trichomes may be less dense or smaller in size, leading to their inconspicuous appearance.

However, this does not mean that the trichomes are less essential for these air plants. They still play a crucial role in the plant’s survival, just like they do in plants with more prominent trichomes.

Species - Tillandsia Bulbosa

Here are some examples of Tillandsia with less visible trichomes …

  • Tillandsia Tenuifolia – has thin green pine needle-like leaves with dispersed trichomes.
  • Tillandsia Geminiflora – varies considerably, some show off their trichomes, while others don’t.
  • Tillandsia Neglecta – a forest-dwelling species with fewer trichomes.
  • Tillandsia Bulbosa – has small and widely dispersed, appressed trichomes.

When caring for mesic air plants with fewer trichomes, it is essential to understand they have slightly different water and light requirements. Since the trichomes are less dense, the leaves absorb less water, meaning the plants will need more frequent watering compared to species with more abundant trichomes. I recommend soaking mesic air plants once every 7 days for around 20-30 minutes.

Greener mesic plants generally prefer a shadier environment than xeric air plants and are more susceptible to sunburn due to the lower number of trichomes protecting their leaves. Place them in a spot with filtered or indirect sunlight to help them thrive.

Growing Conditions Affecting Trichomes

In the spring and summer months, air plants experience increased growth and metabolic activity, which can also lead to the production of more trichomes. As the days become longer and warmer, your air plants will need to adapt to higher levels of UV radiation and increased transpiration. During these months, ensure your air plants receive sufficient airflow, water, and indirect sunlight to keep their trichomes functioning optimally.

Short scale-like trichomes

During winter, lower temperatures and reduced sunlight can cause air plants to slow down their growth. However, this does not mean they stop producing trichomes. On the contrary, the cooler conditions may trigger them to develop more trichomes to aid in temperature regulation and water absorption. To maintain your air plant’s health during these months, ensure they receive adequate indirect sunlight and avoid overwatering.

Air plants are well known for their drought-tolerant characteristics. This adaptation is due primarily to the presence of their tiny trichomes which enables them to absorb moisture directly from the air rather than relying on a traditional root system. As a result, your air plants can endure periods of minimal rainfall or watering, and low humidity, more effectively than other plant species.

However, by paying close attention to seasonal changes you can create an environment that encourages healthy trichome growth on your air plants throughout the year. Most air plants thrive when the temperature remains between 50-90°F (10-32°C).

Author - Stephen Little
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