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Air Plants: How to Care for Air Plants (Tillandsia) | The Old Farmer's Almanac

How to Care for Air Plants (Tillandsia)

Photo Credit
Pixabay
Botanical Name
Tillandsia spp.
Plant Type
Sun Exposure
Bloom Time
Hardiness Zone

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Growing Air Plants: Watering, Light, and Pests

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Unique air plants can thrive indoors without using any soil at all. However, they need proper care. Learn how often to water air plants and how to keep them alive!

Air plants are having a moment as houseplants because they are adorable, tiny, easy to grow, do not need soil, and also need little light to thrive. Fuzzy, furry, spiky, or trailing, they’re each unique and almost like house “pets.”

About Air Plants

Air plants are members of the bromeliad family. They are “epiphytic,” meaning that they rely on the moisture and nutrients in the atmosphere to grow and thrive while clinging to trees or other supports, such as rocks. 

Forming a rosette of spiraling leaves that can be fuzzy, curly, or spiky in colors ranging from green and silver to peach or red, air plants have an almost other-worldly quality, like they have crawled out from under the sea or been dropped from a UFO.

Since they don’t need to be anchored in soil, they can displayed in a wide variety of creative ways. Use floral wire to secure them to a piece of tree branch, driftwood, or slab of bark.

If you choose to display them in glass containers, remember that they need air circulation, so no closed terrariums, please. They’re called “air” plants for a reason!

You can even use hot glue, velcro, or other adhesives, such as liquid nails, to attach them to a wall or other surface. They are easy to hang in a window by wrapping wire or string around the base a few times or sitting them in any type of container that has an appropriate size opening, such as a candlestick, sea shell, or egg cup. The possibilities are endless.

air plants in a bowl
They are best in an open-dish garden. Don’t put them on anything that holds water, like moss or soil, or they could rot.

What Are Air Plants?

In nature, these plants grow above the ground, their roots anchoring them to rocky cliffs and tree branches. They may cling to a tree for support but take no nutrients from the host plant making them epiphytes and not parasites. In the Bromeliad family, there are over 600 species and varieties of Tillandsias for you to choose from.

Native to the southeastern US, throughout Mexico and Central America, and all the way to northern Argentina, the plants are frost tender: 60 to 80 degrees is the optimal temperature range for them. In warm climates, they can be grown outdoors year-round. In colder locations, they can spend the summer outdoors in dappled shade, protected from direct sun.

Planting
  • No potting soil is needed.
  • The air plant can be placed in hanging glass globes or shells. Any small shallow container will work, or you can attach the plant to a wall hanging. 
  • Make sure the container you choose does not retain water, as air plants may rot if they aren’t allowed to dry off. 
  • Secure the plant with fishing line or wire if necessary.
  • Plants should be handled as little as possible to avoid damage to the leaves.
  • Air plants grow best in a bright window, but not in direct sunlight. Supplemental lighting can be beneficial; use an full-spectrum LED or fluorescent bulb.
  • Air plants need good air circulation.
  • Good spots for air plants are a window near the sink in the kitchen or a bathroom window. The humidity from washing dishes or taking a shower will keep the plants happy! 
Growing

Watering Air Plants

Air plants might not need soil to grow, but they do need water—and the right amount of water. For many air plants, misting is not enough; they need to be submerged in water. 

Their leaves have scales called trichomes that can absorb water and nutrients. Since they can’t absorb enough moisture from the air inside your home, they need to be misted regularly and, if possible, soaked in a bucket of room-temperature water for 20 minutes to an hour once or twice a week.

Not all air plants are the same, and the amount of water your air plant needs is based on where it is from. Those from arid regions of the Americas will be content with a couple of heavy mistings a week, while those from the rainforest will need a good long dunk twice a week.

Your plant will let you know when it needs water. Look closely, and you will notice that the leaves are starting to roll or curl more than usual. Brown leaf tips mean the plant is definitely not getting enough water. One rule of thumb is that the finer the leaves, the more often the plant will need water, and green leaves need more water than silvery ones.

After watering, shake the plant to remove excess water from the center or put it upside down on a towel to drain. Water left sitting in the plant’s crown can cause it to rot. Proper watering is the key to success with air plants.

curujey-1601044_1920_full_width.jpg
T. recurvata growing out of a crack in the bark; this air plant just uses the tree for support not nutrients.

How to Care for Air Plants

  • When fertilizing, use a water-soluble fertilizer meant for bromeliads or orchids diluted to half strength. Add it to the water before soaking the plants. Fertilize once a month, during spring and summer, but don’t overdo it. They really don’t need a lot of fertilizer to thrive.
  • Cut off any dead leaves. 
  • If the plant develops brown tips, they can be trimmed off. This is often a sign that the plant isn’t getting enough water or is being kept in an area that is too dry. 
tillandsia-albida-164502_1280_full_width.jpg
T. albida doesn’t mind being tied to a stake.

Air Plant Pups

Air plants grow offsets—called “pups”—from the base of the mother plant. When the pups are a third of the size of the mother, they can be separated from the mother plant and grow on their own. 

Tillandsias bloom only once in their lifetime. These stunning blossoms can last from several days to several months, depending on the variety. After flowering, the plant will start to produce baby plants called pups. They can be removed when they are about 1/3 to 1/2 the size of the mother plant. This can take a year or more! Eventually, the mother plant dries up and dies off.

Gardening Products
Wit and Wisdom
  • The only purpose of air plant roots is to anchor them to whatever they are growing on.
  • The fuzzier the leaves are, the drier the air the plant can tolerate.
  • Though it may look like dead moss hanging from a tree, Spanish moss is a type of air plant!
  • Air plants are related to pineapples; both are members of the bromeliad family.
south-1369686_1920_full_width.jpg
The Spanish moss that grows abundantly in the South is not a moss at all but an air plant - Tillandsia usneoides.
Pests/Diseases

Pests are not common on air plants. Occasionally scale insects and mealybugs can be found on the plants.

If air plants are not receiving enough water, the tips of their leaves may turn brown or yellow. Trim these off and adjust your soaking schedule, or increase humidity. 

About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprising that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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