If you’re looking to expand your plant collection or start gardening as a new hobby, getting an air plant is a great option! Air plants (Tillandsia spp.) are epiphytes, which means they grow on other plants in nature, usually on the branches of trees. This means that they don’t require any soil to grow!
There are literally hundreds of different kinds of species and varieties of air plants. They generally have strap-shaped or slender triangle-shaped leaves that form a rosette pattern with new growth emerging from the center. Those with silver foliage are typically the most drought-resistant, while those with green leaves tend to dry out more quickly.
There are also vibrant species, such as Tillandsia maxima, which can have coral-colored leaves. Most species also have lovely tubular or funnel-shaped flowers.
Since they don’t need soil to thrive, indoor air plants are a great option for beginners! They’re simple to care for and low maintenance, plus they make lovely decorations.
It’s important to know that even though the term ‘air plant’ is most often used to describe plants in the Tillandsia genus, there are actually hundreds of different types and varieties of air plants that come from many different plant families.
We’ve included some of the best ones in our article for you to check out. Keep reading to find out all you need to know about caring for these beautiful tropical plants in the home.
Botanical Name: Tillandsia spp.
Common Name: Air plants
Plant Type: Epiphyte
Hardiness Zones: 9 – 13 (USDA)
Sun Exposure: Bright indirect sunlight
Native Area: Southern United States, Mexico, Central America, South America
Quick Guide: Growing & Caring for Air Plants
- Air plants are epiphytes, which means they grow on other plants in nature, usually on the branches of trees. This means that they don’t require any soil to grow.
- However, they still require the same care as any other houseplant, including adequate water, light, and temperature.
- Air plants are used to bright to medium indirect light because they are frequently seen growing on trees and other large plants under the forest canopy.
- They have specific watering requirements which can seem a little different than watering other typical houseplants.
- Providing air plants with enough moisture and humidity is one of the most essential aspects of caring for them indoors.
What are Air Plants?
“Air plants” are plants that don’t need soil to grow. Instead, they grow on top of other plants, like trees, without being parasitic. Air plants don’t need soil because they can receive all the nutrients they need from the air, water, and debris in their immediate environment.
In fact, the Greek word for air plants is ‘epiphyte’ which literally means ‘on top of plant.’ Air plants also do not have roots like other plants. Instead, they have a few short ones that assist hold it onto whatever surface it is on.
Do Air Plants Need Soil?
The fact that air plants, or epiphytes, do not require soil to survive is their distinguishing feature.
However, some air plants, including staghorn ferns, birds nest ferns, some species of moss, and some species of philodendron, can adapt to grow in soil, though they require exceptionally dry, well-draining mixtures to survive.
Air Plant Care
Don’t be afraid of growing and caring for air plants just because they don’t require soil like traditional house plants. Once you know what they need, air plants are easy to take care of and are quite low-maintenance.
Even though you don’t have to bother about potting them, they still require the same care as any other houseplant, including adequate water, light, and temperature.
When flowers start to grow from an air plant, you’ll know it’s getting all the nutrients it requires. Air plants bloom to propagate, so once the flower dries, cut it off to encourage new growth or “pups” which are essentially baby air plants.
You can either remove the pups from the mother plant or let them grow and clump together. New plants will grow from the offsets, and the mother plant will eventually die.
When trying to understand how to care for air plants, it’s important to understand how they thrive in their native habitats.
They receive high humidity levels and plenty of rainfall in their native areas of Southern United States, Mexico, Central, and South America with literally warm temperatures that don’t drop below the 50s.
Air plants are used to bright to medium indirect light because they are frequently seen growing on trees and other large plants under the forest canopy. And so, avoid prolonged direct sunlight exposure, which will severely damage their delicate foliage.
Make sure they receive a minimum of 4 to 6 hours of bright, filtered light every day. They’ll thrive well in any room in your house with lots of windows.
Don’t ever plant air plants in soil. They are epiphytes, meaning they develop on other plants rather than in the soil.
For this reason, you can get creative about the ways you style and display them in your home! We’ve mentioned some fun ideas in this article below that we recommend you try out.
To grow well indoors, air plants need to be watered regularly. But watering air plants can seem a little different than watering typical houseplants since they don’t need soil to grow.
Most air plants can be watered successfully by letting them soak in a bowl of distilled water for 20 to 40 minutes every one to two weeks. But some air plants do better with a regular mist or a quick dunk in water rather than a longer soak.
To learn the best way to water your air plant and how often to do so, you should first learn about the species it is and do some quick research on it.
Make sure you use rainfall, distilled, or bottled water for watering your air plants. This is because salts in softened water can burn air plants, while minerals in tap water can clog the trichomes on air plant leaves and prevent them from absorbing nutrients.
Temperature and Humidity
Providing air plants with enough moisture and humidity is one of the most essential aspects of caring for them indoors. To avoid drying out, air plants like warm, humid environments.
Air plants do fine in the normal temperatures of a home. Just make sure they don’t get cold drafts or temperatures in the winter. In general, they prefer temperatures between 50 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Interestingly, temperature fluctuations are ideal for them. They will flourish with a 10-degree temperature drop that replicates the cool nights in their native jungle. However, they won’t survive freezing temperatures. They are entirely tropical and must be brought indoors for the winter.
When it comes to humidity, don’t put your air plants near your home’s heating or cooling vents or in places that are very dry. You can also grow your plant in a room that is very humid, such as the bathroom, the laundry room, or the kitchen. For drier rooms, place a humidifier near them to help increase humidity levels.
Add water-soluble fertilizer for air plants, bromeliads, or epiphytes to the water you submerge them in once a month to feed them. Special fertilizers like these have nitrogen in a form that plants can absorb and use.
Types of Air Plants
Air plants, also known as epiphytes, come from many different plant families, and there are likely hundreds or thousands of them. Here are a few of the most well-liked and well-known types of air plants.
Bromeliads Family (Bromeliaceae)
The bromeliad family (Bromeliaceae) is the largest and most diversified group of air plants, as well as the most well-known.
Even though not all of the plants in this family are epiphytes, a lot of them have evolved to thrive in epiphytic environments over time. Among others, this family contains the well-known Tillandsia and Guzmania genera.
Rather than using their roots for support, epiphytic bromeliads primarily rely on the trichomes on their leaves to absorb water and nutrients.
Orchid Family (Orchidaceae)
There are also a lot of epiphytic plants in the orchid family. The phalaenopsis orchids are the most popular and well-known of these plants.
The orchid family’s epiphytic species use their roots to support themselves and to take in water and nutrients from their surroundings.
The Cactaceae cactus family includes epiphytic cacti, which are indigenous to the tropical rainforests of Central and South America.
This includes well-known species like the Christmas cactus, Thanksgiving cactus, Easter cactus, Rhipsalis, fishbone cactus, and others.
Recommended Species of Tillandsias to Consider Growing
Here are some of the most popular species of Tillandsia to consider growing:
Tillandsia bulbosa: This species has a base that looks like a bulb and leaves that look like tentacles making it look like a sea creature! Among its common varieties are ‘Guatemala’ and ‘Belize.’
Tillandsia inoantha: The spiky leaves of this species, which is also known as a sky plant, are initially silvery in color before changing to a deeper shade of green as the plant grows. It is native to Mexico and Costa Rica and produces a beautiful yellow or white flower. The varieties ‘Guatemala,’ ‘Mexican,’ and ‘Rubra’ are the most popular ones.
Tillandsia xerographica: This species, known as Xeros, is one of the most popular. As they develop, the leaves of these air plants curl and spiral around themselves.
Tillandsia streptophylla: This species also referred to as Shirley Temple for its curly foliage, prefers drier conditions than other air plants.
Tillandsia aeranthos: This species is indigenous to Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. This small, spiky plant has a pink bud that opens into a beautiful, deep purple flower. Among the most popular varieties are ‘Grey Ghost,’ ‘Bronze,’ ‘Black,’ and ‘Purple,’ which are named for the color of their leaves.
Air Plant Display and Styling Ideas
Since air plants don’t need soil to grow, there are many fun and creative ways to show them off around your home. Feel free to get creative with how you display your air plant as long as you can move it to water it. Here are some ideas you can try out:
Terrarium: Air plants look best in terrariums where you can fully display their unique characteristics. But be careful when you consider doing this since only certain types of air plants work in enclosed terrariums. Mesic air plants are great for terrariums since they prefer humid environments but xeric air plants need drier conditions. Air circulation is another thing to consider when displaying them this way.
Vase or bowl: You can place some in a shallow vase or bowl and fill it with rock, sand, or even small crystals!
Magnet on the fridge: Display your stunning air plants by placing one in a small container with a magnet attached to it and putting it on your fridge.
Tie them to driftwood: You can even tie them to driftwood along with a translucent fishing line to display their beauty in an innovative way.
Planter or holder: Consider placing one in its own dedicated planter and setting it on any surface around your house for simple but effective decor.
How to Propagate Air Plants
Since the term air plant refers to a wide variety of plants, there are several common methods for propagating air plants.
In general, most epiphytic plants propagate by division of pups from the mother plant, although some species, such as tropical cacti, can also be propagated through stem cuttings.
Before attempting either of the following ways, make sure you know the best way to propagate the type of air plant you have.
How to Propagate Air Plants by Division
Healthy, well-established air plants will eventually start to produce pups or offshoots. You can divide them apart and grow them as individual plants.
To separate the pup from the mother plant, hold the plant’s base and gently wriggle the two apart. You can use a clean, sharp knife or a pair of sterilized scissors to separate them if they are difficult to pull apart.
Once you’ve separated them, start taking care of your new baby air plant the same way you would the mother plant.
How to Propagate Air Plants by Stem Cuttings
For this method, start by taking 4 to 5-inch long stem cuttings using a pair of clean, sharp scissors or pruning shears. Then, allow the cut edge to develop a callus by placing the cuttings aside in a cool, dry area for at least 24 hours.
After that, fill a small glass or vase halfway with distilled or filtered water and submerge the bottom of the cutting.
Place the cuttings in a spot with bright, indirect light, and change the water once each week. You should see new roots developing below the water after a few weeks.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases for Air Plants
When it comes to pests, keep an eye out for common houseplant pests such as mealybugs or scale insects on your air plants. If you spot an infestation, treat your plant with a pesticide that’s labeled safe for use on Tillandsias.
When it comes to plant diseases, dampness is what causes the most issues. Keep in mind that the secret to proper air plant care is to make sure your particular air plant is getting the right amount of water.
This is important because too much water can cause the plant to rot from the inside out. Plant diseases such as leaf rot and other fungal diseases can become a problem if air plants are allowed to be too damp.
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Melissa Pino is a biologist, master gardener, and regular contributor for Planet Natural. Melissa’s work focuses on promoting environmentally-friendly practices, helping people create healthy gardens and finding ways to achieve overall health and wellness.