Updated: Feb 7
Tillandsia or ‘Air Plants’ are some of the most unique, low maintenance plants that can be grown in the home. Air plants don’t require soil to grow in, so there is no worry of making a mess or insect problems.
Air plants are epiphytes, meaning they live on other plants or even rocks in their natural habitats. They rely on the structures they live on in nature to provide them with all of the moisture and nutrients they need to survive. This makes them an extremely versatile plant that has evolved to live in some of the most extreme conditions.
Air plants can be found growing in a range of different environments, including rainforests, woodlands and deserts throughout the continents of North America and South America. Some air plant species are threatened because of their low survival rates in the harsh environments they grow in combined with human collection and habitat destruction.
With a lack of roots to absorb moisture and nutrients like terrestrial plants do, air plant leaves have evolved to be able to function as roots by absorbing moisture and nutrients. The difference is that roots are able to go in search of what they need and air plants are immobile.
Air plants have developed sticky, hair-like structures on their leaves called trichomes that allow the plant to collect moisture and nutrient particles from their surrounding environments. These nutrients come in the form of water, dust particles, animal droppings and other plant matter which are then absorbed through the plant’s leaves.
There are two types of air plant growth patterns based on the native environments they grow in, xeric ‘dry environment’ and mesic ‘moderate moisture environment’. Some air plants have both xeric and mesic growth patterns, meaning they have adapted to survive in either type of environment.
Xeric Air Plants
Xeric air plants grow in high sun, low moisture conditions of deserts and mountains.
These plants have evolved to grow thicker leaves with more trichomes, giving them a fuzzy, silvery appearance. Their thick leaves allow them to hold onto moisture longer during droughts and their large, fuzzy trichomes allow them to collect dust particles and moisture from the air.
Mesic Air Plants
Mesic air plants grow in low light, high moisture conditions of rainforests. The leaves on mesic air plants are greener and smoother than xeric air plants because of the more mild conditions they grow in that give them frequent moisture, cooler temperatures and more organic material to feed on.
Air plants produce flowers that range in color from blue to pink and are pollinated by bees, hummingbirds and bats. They won't produce flowers until they mature after 3-5 years and are not as likely to flower in the low light environments inside our homes. After an air plant’s flower dies, the plant will die shortly after. Ideally, the plant will produce offsets before dying. The offset will naturally separate from the parent plant as it dies, but it can also be removed by hand and grown in the same conditions as the parent plant.
Since our homes tend to be dry, sanitary environments not conducive to the life of an air plant, we must add a few extra steps to our plant care routine in order to help these plants
grow. The common temperatures of our homes between 60°- 80°F are ideal for air plants, but moisture levels must be increased to prevent them from shriveling and dying. Moisture levels can be increased by running a humidifier near the air plant a majority of the day and regularly misting and soaking them in water.
Keep your air plant away from a/c vents and drafts from windows or doors to prevent the leaves from drying out. This is especially important during the dry, winter months when the heater is running.
Top Air Plant Varieties
Here are some of the most popular air plants to keep as house plants and their growth type:
Tillandsia usneoides ‘Spanish Moss’ (mesic)
Tillandsia ionantha (xeric & mesic)
Tillandsia stricta (xeric & mesic)
Tillandsia brachycaulos (xeric & mesic)
Tillandsia aeranthos (xeric)
Tillandsia xerographica (xeric)
Tillandsia caput medusae (xeric)
Tillandsia tectorum Ecuador (xeric)
Tillandsia streptophylla (xeric)
When misting and soaking air plants, the type of water you use is just as important as how often you are watering. Ideally, air plants want natural water from wells, ponds, springs or rain that contain nutrients and minerals. Since these are not often readily available in our homes, bottled spring water or tap water are the next best options because of the natural minerals they contain.
Tap water often contains calcium, chlorine and fluorides, so filtering the water before misting or soaking your plants is recommended. The calcium in tap water can build up on the air plant’s leaves over time, clogging the leaf pores. Letting tap water sit out overnight will allow the chlorine and fluoride to evaporate out. Avoid using distilled water because this water lacks nutrients and minerals beneficial to air plants.
If your air plant’s leaves are curling and browning at the tips, these are signs that it is thirsty. Regularly misting and soaking your air plant are the best ways to help the plant retain moisture and keep a healthy look.
Misting Your Air Plant
Both xeric and mesic air plants should be misted at least 2-3 times per week. When misting an air plant, ensure you are misting heavily until the entire plant is drenched with water. Lightly misting the plant will not be enough moisture for the plant to absorb, especially in drier environments.
Soaking Your Air Plant
Only mesic air plants should be soaked. Xeric air plants don’t require as much water and should only be misted to prevent rotting. However, xeric air plants suffering from a long period of drought can be soaked to help it bounce back. Air plants that are both mesic and xeric can be soaked.
To soak your air plant, completely submerge it in water for about an hour every two weeks. Avoid leaving the plant submerged for more than 12 hours or you can risk drowning it. Water that sits between the leaves for too long can cause the plant to rot, so shake off any excess water or let the plant hang upside down until dry. The plant can also be rested on absorbent material such as a paper towel or washcloth to help absorb excess moisture.
Since air plants are naturally small in size and slow growers, they do not require high nutrient fertilizers like other, fast growing house plants. Water soluble, all purpose fertilizers should be diluted to ¼ the regular dose and can be administered by mixing them with water in a spray bottle and misting them or adding the fertilizer to the water bath you soak them in. An alternative is to purchase an already mixed fertilizer spray.
Fertilizers that are ideal for air plants are Bromeliad or succulent fertilizers.
Jack’s All Purpose - dilute to ¼ the regular dose
Cute Farms Air Plant Fertilizer - Spray
Grow More Bromeliad/Tillandsia Fertilizer - Water Soluble
Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) can be applied to your air plant just as you would a fertilizer by either spraying the plant or applying it to a water bath. Epsom salts should not be used in place of fertilizers because they do not contain the needed nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium the plants need. Instead, they should be used as a supplement to help the plant absorb more nutrients from the fertilizer through the magnesium and sulfur they provide the plant.
Air plants are a great addition to your plant collection because of how low maintenance they are and because they can add a unique aesthetic to your home. Unlike potted plants that take up space, air plants can be placed pretty much anywhere in the home that gets ample lighting.
If you have any more questions about how to care for an air plant, we will be happy to assist you in a virtual telehealth appointment with one of our Plant Specialists. Please click on one of the options below to book an appointment.