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  Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society

Growing Succulents in the Desert Column

(List of Growing Succulents in the Desert columns)

"Tillandsia ehlersiana: A Superb Succulent Bromeliad" by Mark Dimmitt

Photos by Mark Dimmitt

(This article may only be reprinted with the author's permission.)

Some succulent bromeliads (family Bromeliaceae) are popular with succulent collectors, primarily the terrestrial genus Dyckia. Most succulent collectors have neglected the genus Tillandsia. The approximately 600 species of tropical rosette plants in this genus range from terrestrials to epiphytes (and saxicoles) in habitats from wet rainforests to near-deserts. The arid land epiphytes are called atmospheric bromeliads, more commonly and incorrectly known as “air plants”. Atmospherics tend to have only a few roots for anchorage on the host tree or rock. The leaves perform nearly all of the water and nutrient uptake, through specialized scales called trichomes. The trichomes are so dense on species from the brightest, most arid habitats that their foliage is white. Finally, some of the atmospheric tillandsias are succulent.

Most atmospheric tillandsias are difficult to grow outside of a greenhouse in desert climates. They lose water rapidly to the dry hot air, and even watering twice a day is not sufficient to keep them alive in June. I’ve been growing tillandsias for over 40 years, and I’ve settled on one species that I think is the best adapted to fitting into typical succulent collections without special care. It’s also a very beautiful one.

Tillandsia ehlersiana (Figure 1) has many traits that should appeal to succulent collectors. It’s squat and fat. It has bright white leaves. It has attractive flowers. Best of all, it’s easy to grow among other succulents. This species has a substantial root system for an atmospheric bromeliad, which confers two benefits. It will firmly anchor in a pot (most atmospheric species will not). The root system is functional at taking up water, so a potted plant can be grown outdoors in the desert.

The root system is still tiny relative to the size of the plant. The one in Figure 1 is in a 2-inch pot. That pot has been set into a 12-inch Mark Muradian pot filled with gravel to keep the plant upright and to provide attractive staging.

To grow this plant outdoors in the desert, give it very bright light to keep the foliage white. Full summer sun is too much, but it will do very well under the edge of a mesquite or palo verde tree. Soak both leaves and roots three times a week during the summer, and once a week or so during cool weather. Protect it from frost.

When mature, a branched inflorescence grows from the apex of the rosette; the pink bracts produce tubular violet flowers over many weeks (Figure 2). A flowered rosette will die in another year or two, but will first produce three to five or more offsets. Offsets mature and flower in two to three years. They can be removed from the mother plant when about ¼ to 1/3 mature size and potted separately, or they can be left to grow into a clump (Figure 3). If grown in a greenhouse or humid climate, you can mount the plant on a branch (Figure 4). Tie or glue it securely, and in a few months the roots will hold it fast.

Tillandsia ehlersiana is rarely found in succulent nurseries. Look for it in bromeliad nurseries.


List of Growing Succulents in the Desert columns