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.