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Up in the air with Tillandsias, the air plants
Have you heard of air plants? It seems incredible that any plant could live without soil, but this is the self-contained expertise of Tillandsia. These air plants, as they are affectionately known, are quite simply unique. They don't really live OFF air, but more correctly, they live IN air. They need water and also some light. Preferably not too bright and certainly not a south-facing windowsill during the summer. Surely, you might be pondering, they need compost? No, they just hang around, looking rather like a spider or perhaps a sea creature.
Tillandsias actually absorb nutrients and moisture from the air through the tiny holes in their succulent foliage. They do require a host. But not in a parasitic sense. They just like to attach their limbs to something for support so they can get the most of the air around them. These are rather beautiful and mysterious plants which certainly attract a lot of attention. They are demure and undemanding and can be used in contemporary home settings; retro environments or rustic situations. They can be used to good effect inside terrariums, simply stuck to a glass sculpture, hang from driftwood, from timber or metal - or even be glued to a wall or ceiling. Tillandsias can even be made into pictures a living mural perhaps. So how do they do it?
So how do this strange plants reproduce? They do produce a bloom from time to time and can thereby create baby tillandsias which are miniatures of the parent plant. What these interesting, curious specimens need from their carer is a soaking every few days. Misting with a spray is beneficial, or dunk your Tillandsia in tepid water.
Don't allow them to stay wet for longer than an hour. You can also spray your plant with specialist Tillandsia fertiliser which will help during the reproduction process.
Prickly beasts and where to find them
What about cacti? Why do people seem to like these prickly plants when they appear to be hell bent on maiming their carers? It appears that curiosity value is high. These are desert plants that live in inhospitable environments. And it seems that men, in particular, enjoy their dubious charms. Statistics show that boys from the age of 7 onwards tend to show an interest while girls hardly give them a second glance.
This could be because they are robust and forgiving. They require little care and will stick around looking pretty much the same even if you have forgotten they exist. Is this a metaphor, perhaps? Cacti actually come in a vast array of shapes and sizes, and not all of them are prickly. They store water in their stems. Their roots spread over a wide area so they can grab hold of every drop that's available. They have spines instead of leaves as the lack of surface area means they don't lose much moisture. And of course the spines keep animals away, so they are a form of self-protection.
Cacti are able to not only withstand very hot daytime temperatures but also freezing cold nights. In fact, in high, dry places they can even grow long, woolly coats! Did you know that this born survivor of the plant world is usually the last plant left standing after all other vegetation has given up the ghost?
Cacti also end up looking like each other. You will notice that in a particular environment they adapt to their surroundings (wind direction, for example) and grow into a shape that can best cope with the elements. How's that for a clever plant?
No mention of cacti and succulents can pass without reference to Opuntia, the prickly pear cactus. They are sought-after here in the UK as food for tortoises and iguana! The pads, fruit and flowers are all highly palatable and contain good levels of vitamin C and fibre!
Some say you have to grow them in order to know them, and it seems that the world of cacti is likely to grow on you.