If you’re anything like us, the first time you laid eyes on these wild freaks of nature known as air plants, you were simultaneously baffled and instantly in love. Where’s the soil? How do you water them? Is this some crazy invention from a mad botanist?
Nope, this is just how amazing these plants are—dirt not required—such independent spirits! In addition to being absolutely adorable, air plants are low maintenance and pet-safe; perfect for anyone looking for a unique, yet forgiving houseplant that does not require much attention.
What Are Air Plants?
Air plants, also known as Tillandsia, are members of the Bromeliad family—a group of mostly epiphytes, which are non-parasitic plants that grow on other plants or structures such as trees, nurse logs, rocks, or whatever they can get their “hands” on. Tillandsias absorb water and nutrients through their foliage, while their roots simply act as an anchor to secure them in place.
Tillandsias are native to the forests, mountains, and deserts of northern Mexico, southeastern United States, Mesoamerica, the Caribbean, and central Argentina. They range in size from less than an inch to the size of a large grapefruit. Air plants are also distant relatives to pineapples!
Caring for Air Plants
Water & Humidity
Since air plants can be found growing in a wide range of climates, simulating the plant’s natural habitat will ensure a long and healthy life. A few telltale signs of how to best care for your specific Tillandsia come from the appearance of its foliage:
- Thin, green foliage: Originates from a humid, tropical or subtropical environment; needs regular weekly soakings for about 10–20 minutes; also benefits from spritzing throughout the week.
- Thick foliage or fuzzy, silver foliage: Comes from dryer air environments and only needs a short soak in a bowl of water once per week or to be briefly run under the faucet until it appears wet.
- Dyed foliage: Occasionally, air plants are color-enhanced with a plant-safe dye to give them a more vibrant appearance; this will slowly fade over several months as the plant is watered.
Tillandsias prefer room temperature water; avoid distilled or softened water. Be sure to fully submerge plants. After watering, lightly shake off and drip dry plants upside-down so any excess water can drain out—sitting water between foliage can cause rotting. Allow plants to thoroughly dry before returning them to their display location.
Sunlight & Temperature
All air plants prefer bright, indirect light, similar to the filtered light they would receive under tree canopies. Most can handle direct morning sunlight, but anything stronger may cause burnt foliage tips. Here are some helpful guidelines:
- Place directly in north-facing windows
- Place further away from east or south-facing windows
- Be cautious with west exposure, which may be too sunny and hot in the afternoon
- Fluorescent light is okay; plants must be within 3 feet of light and require at least 12 hours daily
Some species are hardy down to 50°F—much lower than many other tropical houseplants. Your plants will also benefit from fresh, moving air, so crack open a window on a warm Spring/Fall day!
Feed once or twice monthly from March to September with a 2-1-2 ratio fertilizer or regular houseplant fertilizer (non-urea) diluted to ¼ strength. Assorted nutrients can also be provided by soaking in rainwater, pondwater, or aquarium water. Household dust has even been known to provide some nutrients!
Reproduction & Flowering
Small plantlets will form around the base of the plant before, during, or after flowering. Each air plant will form a flower at the peak of its life cycle, then begin to die. Plantlets can either be separated from the parent or left to grow in its place.
Problems with pests and diseases are rare for air plants—most issues are from overwatering or underwatering.
- Signs of underwatering: Foliage is dry, browning at the tips, or slightly rolling inward. Try soaking more often, soaking for longer periods, or misting between soaks.
- Signs of overwatering (or not thoroughly dried): Plants develop a darkened color near the base or feel soft/soggy and have begun to rot; overwatering is often fatal or difficult to recover from.
- Avoid contact with copper—it is toxic to air plants!
Displaying Air Plants
My ever-growing collection of air plants lives mostly in my north-facing kitchen window. Some hang in decorative seed pods, while others sit on the branches of a whimsical felt tree. I also have a few others displayed in aeriums throughout the house. They can also be mounted to driftwood, placed in seashells or dishes, set in wall planters, and used in special arrangements. There are so many creative ways to display air plants in your home!
Creating an Aerium
Aeriums are easy to create and a fun way to display air plants and other treasures in repurposed or unique glass containers. Similar to a terrarium, but without the use of soil, aeriums are created by using small amounts of sand, pebbles, or gemstones, along with bits of other natural materials like moss, feathers, or whatever inspires you, plus Tillandsias, of course!
Containers may be of any size, though clear glass is best for plant health. They can either have an opening or be fully enclosed. Just remember that air plants should be removed regularly for proper watering, so be sure you can easily get them in and out of the container!