Tillandsia ionantha, or Sky Plant, is one of the most stunning and popular air plant species. It requires minimal maintenance and is highly adaptable and robust, which makes it a perfect houseplant for beginners. In terms of appearance, the sky plant starts off small with a cluster of thin long gray/green leaves in a round formation. The leaves stretch and become wavier as the plant matures, developing a deeper hue. But while sky plants are the hardiest plants of the air plant species, they need some conditions to bloom and thrive. The following is a complete guide for this plant.
Sky Plant Overview
The sky plant is an evergreen perennial member of the Bromeliaceae family. It is epiphytic, which means it does not need a soil substrate to grow. According to Candide, the plant produces linear silver-grey to green foliage and violet-blue flowers with yellow stamens. The flowers are surrounded by bracts, which are white modified leaves. The central leaves turn red during flowering.
All air plants, Tillandsia spp., naturally grow on tree branches and other plants. This classification consists of hundreds of varieties and species, although silver-colored ones like the sky plant tend to be more drought-resistant than the green varieties. A sky plant only blooms once and then dies. Blooming is more common in the fall but can occur at any time. During this stage, the plant’s foliage becomes more colorful, developing reddish or pink hues. But while flowering only happens once, the mother plant can live for several years if you provide proper care.
The following are some quick facts about sky plants compiled by The Spruce:
- Plant Type: Perennial epiphytic succulent
- Native Area: Central and South America
- Botanical Name: Tillandsia ionantha
- Common Name: Sky plant
- Flower Color: Pink, red, and purple
- Bloom Time: Fall
- Mature Size: Around 6 feet tall.
- Required Sun Exposure: Partial exposure to bright and indirect light
- Hardiness Zones: 9 to 11 (USDA)
Common Sky Plant Varieties and Cultivars
There are several cultivars and varieties of the sky plant, all varying in shape, color, and size. The following are the most popular examples:
How Much Water Does Your Sky Plant Need?
Air plants grow well under warm and humid conditions. However, sky plants are slightly different. They do not require as much water as other plants in the family and will actually be stressed if kept soaking wet. The best way to water a sky plant is by misting it lightly several times a week, but you can increase the frequency if you live in a hot and dry area. If you live in a particularly dry region, you may need to run your sky plant under tap water for a few minutes. Turn it upside down and shake all the excess water free, allowing the plant to dry completely before repositioning it. Try not to fully submerge the plant as trapped water could be detrimental, and always use bottled or filtered water.
Overwatering is very likely to kill your sky plant. Because it does not absorb water through the roots, this plant uses tiny structures called trichomes, which could easily get overwhelmed if exposed to excess water. Therefore, soaking your sky plant is only advisable in dry weather and only for 10 minutes. Sky plants absorb less water in winter, so you will need to reduce your misting or soaking frequency during this time. Remember, misting several times a week is enough unless the humidity is low, in which case, a soak once or twice a week is necessary. You will know your sky plant is getting enough water when the leaves turn green from silvery and the leaf bladed open up and relax a little. On the other hand, an underwatered sky plant’s leaves will curl upwards from the axis.
What Are the Sky Plant’s Lighting Needs?
Sky plants grow on trees and long plants in the wild, which means they receive dappled light. Indoors, they will thrive under bright indirect light. Prolonged exposure to direct sunlight can scorch the leaves and make the foliage extremely dry, especially if the humidity is also low. Consequently, the best place to grow your sky plant is on an east or west-facing window with some shade.
Some cultivars of the sky plant can withstand some exposure to direct sunlight, but only when the sun is low in the sky. If you are growing your sky plant in your office under fluorescent lighting, try to shade the lamp so that the light reaching the plant is not too bright. If your sky plant is showing stunted growth or is not blooming, it could be a sign that it is not receiving sufficient light. Too bright light is indicated by yellow or brown leaves (scorching).
Does Your Sky Plant Need Soil?
Sky plants are aptly named because they will actually grow “in the air.” Their tiny roots have adapted so that they attach to other objects or tree barks and get enough sunlight without having to grow tall. Therefore, you should never place your sky plant in soil or potting medium. You can, instead, use plant-safe wire or glue to secure it in a hanging position. It should begin to wrap itself onto nearby plants, woods, or the provided mount after approximately a month.
What Is the Ideal Temperature and Humidity for a Sky Plant?
The sky plant is a mesic variety of Tillandsia, which means it grows well in warm, humid, and tropical conditions. It can also survive in dry heat as long as you mist it regularly. In winter, the plant takes advantage of the cooler temperatures to flower the following growing season. However, it is not frost-tolerant. The ideal temperature range for a sky plant is between 60°F and 80°F. Temperatures lower than 45°F will kill a sky plant, so try to avoid this. Grow your plant indoors if the winters in your area get extremely cold. However, if you live in USDA zone 9 or warmer, you can leave the plant outside as long as you keep the foliage dry during winter.
Sky plants thrive under moderate humidity but can grow well in dry areas if you mist them regularly. It is recommended that you grow your plant in an area of your home with naturally high humidity, such as the bathroom or kitchen. Alternatively, you can use a pebble tray or humidifier to increase the humidity around the plant. If you live in a humid area, you may not need to mist your sky plant frequently. An occasional soak will be enough to keep the leaves healthy. Sky plants are sensitive to chemicals found in tap water like chlorine, so you should always use distilled or bottled water. Sky plants have very delicate roots, which need proper air circulation to remain healthy. This means that you should grow your plant in an area with adequate airflow.
Feeding Your Sky Plant
Your sky plant will appreciate feeding once or twice a month in summer. Look for a fertilizer made specifically for Tillandsias and follow the instructions on the product. Alternatively, you can add a fish emulsion organic fertilizer to your misting spray for a slow-release feed. If you cannot find a specialized Tillandsia fertilizer, you can apply bromeliad or little orchid fertilizer as a foliar spray.
Repotting Vs. Transplanting
Because they do not grow in soil or potting mediums, Tillandsia ionantha don’t need to be repotted. However, you can transplant them whenever you wish to change their growing location. Simply pick up your sky plant and move it to the new location. As long as the new area does not receive direct sunlight and is sufficiently humid, the plant should continue thriving. Avoid placing your sky plant in cold areas or corners that receive too much heat, such as next to drafty windows or air vents. In case you had secured your plant with glue, it will be more stressful to move it. Be careful not to break the roots.
Pruning Your Sky Plant
Sky plants do not need much pruning and can do without it. Nonetheless, you should not leave dead or dry leaves and tips on the plant. Cut them off or remove them by hand as low down as possible. Some plant owners also prune old flowers from time to time.
How to Propagate Sky Plants
When a sky plant matures, it produces offshoots or pups that allow for easy propagation. Essentially, you only need to allow the pups to grow to about a third or half the size of the mother plant, then cut them off and propagate them in a different area. This process will ensure you have a steady supply of thriving sky plants in your home for several years. Alternatively, you can use seeds to propagate your sky plant. This method is time-consuming and challenging, and you may be forced to assist in fertilization by pollinating the flowers with a fine brush.
Sky plant seeds are also very small and take a long time to germinate. Even worse, the resulting seedlings are tiny, and you need to take extra care, so they do not rot before they mature. All in all, it is easier to propagate your sky plant through its pups than seeds. Always use a sharp blade to remove the pups and be careful not to harm the rest of the plant. Once you get viable pups, you should grow them under the same conditions as the mother plant.
Common Pest and Diseases That Affect Sky Plants
Sky plants are very hardy – the hardiest of the air plant species – and are highly resistant to most pests and diseases. That said, unideal lighting conditions and watering habits can predispose this plant to disease. The solution is to provide your sky plant with access to bright indirect light away from direct sunlight, which could burn the leaves. You also need to mist it several times a week, allowing the water to stand for a while between the leaves to promote absorption. Lastly, avoid growing this plant in soil because the lack of airflow could cause root rot and kill it.
Positioning Your Sky Plant
As already established, sky plants are epiphytic, and you should never place them in a traditional potting medium. In the wild, they grow on other plants and tree branches. You can tuck them into a shell at home, position them in a grass globe, or mount them on an ornamental piece of wood like driftwood or bark. Some people even hang sky plants from specialist wireframes where they are attached by an elastic thread, wire, translucent fishing line, or glue. Obviously, glue offers a more permanent fix.
Styling Your Sky Plants
All air plants are stunning, and you can use them to add color to your home. BHG recommends using your sky plant as a design feature to add pizzazz to your décor. For example, you can display it on its own or in groups to make the most of the colorful foliage. Consider placing it in a glass terrarium or attaching it to driftwood or magnets in prominent places around your home. Sky plants also combine well with orchids on branches, especially since they thrive under similar conditions. You can hang both plants from a glass globe with contrasting or complementing hues. Alternatively, you can use them as a hanging mobile or plant wreath.
Arguably the most popular air plant species, the Sky Plant is colorful, fun to grow, and easy to care for. Its epiphytic nature means you do not need to grow it in soil and a traditional pot, which gives you more flexibility over where you can place it. But while the lack of soil can seem daunting, it does not take a lot to help the sky plant thrive. Make sure to provide adequate humidity, sufficient water, and optimal temperatures. Your sky plant is growing well if it is producing colorful flowers and foliage as noted by Gardening Know How.