Do Air Plants Die After Blooming?

Who doesn’t love to see their indoor plants bloom? After all, it’s usually a sign of success, a plant that’s happy and thriving with a long life ahead of it. But with an air plant, you may be shocked to witness a long-time favorite plant up and flower before sinking into an unstoppable death spiral.

So, what gives?

Air plant flowering

Will An Air Plant Die After It’s Done Blooming?

Air plants will flower as the final stage of their lifespan. They expend all their energy producing the next generation. Just before dying to leave room for their offspring to thrive. Their death is unavoidable and an important part of how they have evolved to thrive in harsh environments.

What does it mean when an air plant blooms?

Like most flowering plants, air plants need just the right conditions to bloom. They also only flower at the end of their life cycle. If you see a bud developing on your air plant, it tells you a few things.

First, it demonstrates that you’re done an excellent job in supporting your plant. You’ve given it perfect light levels, just the right amount of water, and kept it well fed. It’s almost like a salute!

The other thing it tells you is the age of the plant. For most Tillandsias, flowering comes at maturity, after four or five years of consistent growth. A flower tells you that your air plant is totally mature and fully grown, ready to give its life for the next generation of air plants.

The growth cycle of Air plants

Most Tillandsias start life as a tiny pup or perhaps sprout from a seed. The seeds are light and fluffy, like those of a dandelion, and germinate readily given the right conditions.

“The genus Tillandsia has an undeserved reputation for being difficult to grow from seed,” says Dr. Mark A. Dimmitt, curator of plants at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. “In fact, Tillandsias are among the easiest plants in the world to grow.”

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Once they germinate, the new seedlings are small and fragile, easily smothered by algae or dust. However unlike mature plants, the young air plants have sturdy, deep diving roots. They’re ready for the long haul.

Slowly but surely, the tiny plant begins to grow. It draws water and nutrients both through its roots and through special hair-like structures called trichomes. These structures are so effective at sustaining the air plant that the roots never really grow beyond their infant size, and soon serve only to hold the plant in place.

Why do air plants bloom?

It can take up to four or five years for an air plant to reach maturity. Size and shape depends a lot on the species of the plant and the growing environment, but it’s typical for most ornamental Tillandsia to grow half an inch to an inch a year. Most are done growing altogether by the time they are four or five years old.

Once the air plant is fully grown, it may consider flowering. Not all indoor plants bother – building flowers is very energy intensive and without the right light levels and very precise nutrient levels they simply won’t try.

But if your air plant is in top condition and tended for with the utmost of care, it will produce a distinctive bloom. Each flower is unique to the particular type of air plant growing it, and they range in color from luscious purples or creams right through to orange and yellow. Some species change color too, flushing their uppermost leaves bright red or gold.

The flower can last for many months. They’re true marvels of nature, lasting far longer than most flowers. In the wild they’re usually pollinated by hummingbirds and tropical insects. You might also have a variety that self pollinates, a handy trick that means even a solitary plant can still produce good, fertile seeds. The flower will then wither and die, taking the plant down with it.

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But fear not! Even if you don’t get seeds to grow yourself, it’s common for Tillandsias to produce a tiny baby plant as they die – a pup. They’ll appear at the base of the plant as it starts to die. Once the parent has dried out and flaked away, the pup will grow just the same as any other baby air plant. The cycle can begin again.

Air plants growing on a table

How many times will an air plant flower?

An air plant can only flower once in its lifetime. In this way they aren’t too different from other annuals that grow from a seed to a mature plant, bloom once, then die. It’s just that air plants have such a slow rate of growth that it can take years for them to get through their cycle.

Non-one is surprised when a sunflower or poppy sprints from seed to bloom and on to the grave between the spring thaw and the autumn frosts. An air plant simply evolved in such resource poor environments they need a bit more of a run up before they can make their tiny seeds.

How often do air plants produce pups?

It’s easy to confuse air plants with succulents – both grow in harsh environments, and both produce offsets or pups as part of their life cycle. Both also very rarely produce flowers when grown indoors.

Unlike succulents, an air plant will only produce pups once. After its final flower has faded and died, the parent plant will slowly wither. If you look closely at the base, you might see the future hiding beneath the dead and dried out lower leaves.

Dying air plants will often produce a few pups as it shrivels away. Depending on the size and species, you may find one to three miniatures of the larger plant developing at the bottom. You can leave them be to grow in the same spot as their parents, but if you like you can gently remove them from the old plant once they’re about a third the size of the original.

Air plants in a terrarium

Why Do Air Plants Die After Flowering?

Air plants are making the best of some very limited resources. They’re slow growers, used to suffering through dry climates and extended periods of drought. So it makes sense that they do everything they can to ensure their offspring survive.

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When an air plant reaches maturity, the complex hormonal signals that trigger a flower also cause the parent plant to stop growing. It will still photosynthesis and produce energy,  but deep within it’s already starting to die. Its body shrivels, and it turns its attention to making the very best flower it can.

Flowers are expensive, and the highlands and dry forests that the Tillandsia family hail from are tight on resources. To give its offspring the best chance, the parent plant dumps everything it can into the next generation. Rather than grow new leaves or maintain the ones it already has, it instead focuses its energy on making good seeds, and growing strong pups.

Once the seeds spread, the dying air plant shrivels and rots, providing space and a sort of cannibalistic mulch for its pups. It’s a gruesome end for these spiky little weirdoes.

But can you keep a flowering air plant alive, against the odds? Sadly, the answer is “no”. It may take a month or two for the parent to die once the flower is gone, but it’s unavoidable. Researchers from the University of Florence recently undertook a study of how exactly that slow death spiral works, but it kicks off before the flower even emerges. It’s game over for the air plant the second it decides to bloom.

They may be tough and enduring, but there’s nothing to be done once an air plant decides its time is up and blooms. Just sit back and enjoy the swansong, and be ready to find the next generation once it’s over.

Brock

Brock is the head gardener and editor-in-chief at Bigger Garden. Every year you can expect to see something new in his raised beds, from purple broccoli to cotton candy peppers.

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