Dear Master Gardener: My friend gave me an air plant as a gift. How do I care for it?

Answer: Your friend must be up on the latest horticultural trends! Air plants (Tillandsias) are unique and very popular right now. In their natural habitat they are epiphytic (growing on other plants without harming them) and as houseplants they require little care. Many houseplant enthusiasts enjoy displaying air plants in various ways. Some hang the plants on wire or on a wall — there is even special wall art specifically designed for holding air plants. Additionally, some are displayed on driftwood or in open glass globes that have white chipped rock or small natural stones in the base.

Related: Ask the Master Gardner: 3 options for those in search of striking, exotic house plants

Air plants perform best in bright, indirect light, preferably near a west or east facing window. In our northern climate a little sunlight won’t hurt them. There are three methods of watering air plants: misting, rinsing, or soaking. You can mist them to the point of run-off, but you may have to do it every other day if you have low humidity in your house. Rinsing the plants under running water twice a week is another option. I soak mine in a bowl of water once a week for about 20 minutes. Most importantly, excess water should be drained off. I lay mine on a paper towel for a little while. Good air circulation is important to air plants. While they look fabulous in an enclosed terrarium, allow plants to dry at least four hours after watering before putting them back. If you have yours in a glass globe with air holes you don’t have to worry. Clemson University Extension recommends diluting liquid fertilizer at one-fourth the recommended strength and fertilizing your Tillandsia every one to two months.

An example of an air plant, Tillandsias. Photo by Jennifer Knutson
An example of an air plant, Tillandsias. Photo by Jennifer Knutson

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Dear Master Gardener: I heard it is illegal to pick a lady’s slipper because it’s our state flower. Is this true? Is it possible to buy the plant for my garden?

Answer: The Showy Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium reginae), an uncommon, native orchid, became the Minnesota state flower in 1902 and is considered by many to be the most beautiful flower in Minnesota. The Showy Lady’s Slipper is one of 43 terrestrial orchid species that grow in our state. They can be found growing in tamarack and spruce bogs, swamps, wet meadows and prairies, damp deciduous forests, and moist ditches along roadsides. The Showy Lady’s Slipper is a large, multi-stemmed plant with lance-shaped leaves that is 1 to 2 feet tall. A mature plant will have one or two large flowers that are white and sit on a white pouch streaked with rose-pink. These plants have a very long life span and may be as old as 100 years. Lady’s Slippers flower from early June to mid-July.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Resurgence in home gardening leads to demand on seeds

The state of Minnesota has regulated the collection and commercial sale of this species since 1925. The collection and sale of native orchids and other wildflowers are regulated by Minnesota Statutes. Unfortunately, there has been a decline in the population of Lady’s Slippers due to herbicides used near roadside areas, road construction, wetland drainage, and illegal picking and uprooting. Removal of orchids by private citizens in areas threatened by roadwork need a permit from the local Department of Transportation district office, and usually have to be transplanted to public land rather than private property. If you discover that Lady’s Slipper orchids, or other statute-listed plants are threatened by construction on public lands, you should contact the Minnesota DNR.

It is unnecessary to try to transplant Showy Lady’s Slippers from the wild into your garden because they are available from some nurseries that specialize in native plants. Not to mention, they do not transplant well. If you purchase one, keep in mind that they need just the right conditions to grow successfully, replicating their natural habitat as closely as possible. As you can well imagine, they can be an expensive plant to purchase.

If you have an interest in learning more about Minnesota orchids there is an excellent book written by Welby Smith, a DNR botanist, called Orchids of Minnesota, and published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Protect your garden by rotating your crops

March Gardening Tips

  • Prune apple, crabapple and oaks by the end of the month. Try to prune apple trees as close to bud break as possible to reduce the chance of winter injury.

  • At the end of the month, start seeds for warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. Use sterile seed-starting mix and clean containers with good drainage. Keep soil warm and moist. Place seedlings in a bright window or under artificial lights.

  • Sweet alyssum, blue salvia, and dianthus seeds can be started mid to late March.

Related: Ask the master gardener: Winter sowing and growing in small spaces

  • If you have old seeds you can check for viability by laying the seeds on a damp paper towel, folding the towel over the seeds, and placing them in a resealable plastic bag. Place in a warm location and check for germination over the next week. Carefully remove the germinated seeds from the towel and plant them in pots.

  • Florists and nurseries will be offering “shamrock plants” this month to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Even though the green or burgundy leaves are shamrock-shaped, these houseplants are not shamrocks, but members of the genus Oxalis. Choose Oxalis plants with lush, healthy foliage and lots of new flower buds. To thrive indoors, these plants prefer cool conditions and bright light, especially when in bloom. Interestingly, Oxalis leaves open in bright light and close at night.

  • Houseplants that are pot-bound can be repotted into bigger containers this month. Use new potting soil and water well. Fertilize all interior plants with a liquid fertilizer mixed at one-half strength when you see new growth forming.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Aloe vera plant grown indoors offers surprises

  • Toward the end of the month, cut some branches of pussy willow, forsythia, flowering plums, or other spring blooming plants to force them into bloom indoors. Re-cut the stems and place in containers of warm water in indirect light. Move them to brighter light as the flower buds open and enjoy an early touch of spring!

  • When the snow melts you may see vole damage in your lawn. If so, rake up any dead grass and re-seed the area when the soil warms up.

  • Prune hydrangeas (that bloom on new wood) to the first pair of buds above ground.

  • Prune grapes before new growth emerges. They will overproduce and have small fruit unless the vines are pruned every year.

  • Choose a nice day and, if it’s not frozen solid, turn your compost pile to get it heating up again.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Espalier method is an efficient and elegant way of growing plants

You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A Master Gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at umnmastergardener@gmail.com and I will answer you in the column if space allows.
University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.