Power lines might not seem like the ideal place for a plant to call home, but curious observers throughout the Americas might see strange, spiky plants that rest upon power lines like party decorations. So what is that plant growing on power lines? Never fear, PlantSnap is here to identify this mystery plant once and for all! Drumroll, please…
These plants are from the genus Tillandsia – also known as airplants or ballmoss
There are over 650 different species within this genus. While some of these plants’ colloquial names suggest otherwise, they are not genuine moss. Instead, they are a flowering plant of the Bromeliaceae family.
Tillandsia recurvata, in particular, is often seen clinging to phone wires lining the street. Airplants like Tillandsia recurvata thrive in environments that are low-light and high humidity with little airflow. They can annoy disgruntled landowners, who sometimes regard the plant as an ugly weed.
Some people love airplants
Airplants are growing in popularity because they are a low maintenance house plant that only needs to be watered occasionally. These plants are featured in hip garden gift stores and perched upon millennial window-sills. However they’re nothing new, ballmoss is indigenous to a many warmer regions of the Americas. Their natural habitat stretches from coastal regions of the state of Georgia, all the way down to northern Argentina and Chile. Ball moss doesn’t travel to cooler climates naturally as it is very sensitive to freezing, especially when its leaves are moist. Other species of Tillandsia are more hardy and can grow in colder areas, and some species even tolerate frost.
More fun facts about airplants
In addition to growing on powerlines, Tillandsia plants grow on trees (such as the southern live oak tree). Certain species will also grow upon rocks and in arid soil. They usually grow to a spherical size somewhere between a golf ball and a soccer ball.
Even though they are often found growing upon other plants, Tillandsia are not parasites. They are epiphytes. This means that the airplants do not derive nutrition from their host, but seek physical support from a host (a tree, a power line, a rock or a refrigerator magnet).
Airplants absorb water that collects on its silvery leaves and photosynthesizes. They also collect nitrogen from bacteria that travel through the air via windblown dust. Because air plants do not have a functional root system, they preserve water by closing their stomata during the day and reopening again at night. This process is known as a CAM cycle.
Moths, hummingbirds, and bats pollinate Tillandsia. They can take many years to flower. When the plant does finally fruit, it also signifies the end of the individual plant’s life. Seeds form and the mother plant is then destroyed – a final hurrah ending in both poetic and literal death.
So how do you keep an airplant alive?
Most airplants are happiest with an overnight soak in water around once a week, depending on the climate. Follow that up with four hours of bright, indirect light, allowing the plant to dry out completely. Take care that the plant doesn’t end up burning in the sun. Indirect light is key. Keep the plant in a place with air circulation (aka not a terrarium). If you’re feeling particularly generous, you can even fertilize your airplant once a month with a bromeliad mix.
Have you spotted airplants or ballmoss clustered up on power lines? Or enjoyed the strange presence of these spiky plants in your home? We’d love to hear about your experiences with Tillandsia and any creative ideas about how to take care of airplants in your home.