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How to Care for Air Plants

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How to Care for Air Plants

If you love houseplants or are passionate about interior décor, you’ve most likely seen some pretty cool projects and displays involving air plants. Air plants, known formally as tillandsias, are those quirky, other-worldly-looking little plants that are extraordinarily popular with houseplant gardeners. And in spite of their exotic appearance, they are actually quite low maintenance and easy to grow.

But before we dive in to how to grow these quirky creatures, let’s take a minute to talk about what they are and how they grow — because once you understand that, their maintenance makes a little more sense.

What exactly are air plants?

Air plants, or tillandsias, are a type of bromeliad that are native to much of Central and South America, Mexico, and the West Indies. In the United States, they can be found in southern states including Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, Florida, and California — and while many prefer the humid conditions of the rainforest, many others grow in deserts, on cliffs, and on rocks.

How on earth do these things grow?

So here’s the thing — air plants do not need soil to grow, and that’s where traditional gardeners and houseplant aficionados tend to scratch their heads and walk wider circles around these intriguing little plants. They attach themselves to support structures like trees and rocks, and their nutrition comes from their environment.

Air plants are epiphytes, which means they absorb moisture and nutrients through their leaves rather than through roots in the soil. And that means they are perfect candidates for mounting on displays and adding to terrariums (Need more crafty ideas for air plant displays? Check out our blog post on DIY Air Plant Projects. So air plants can happily grow all by themselves on a table top, on a piece of driftwood, tucked into a shell or mounted in a terrarium — but they require no soil in a container at all.

How to Care for Air Plants

Their care is fairly straightforward and easy, although because they don’t grow in soil, it takes a minute to wrap your head around the maintenance. And let’s dispel one huge air plant myth right now — in spite of their name, air plants actually do need more than simply air to survive. Remember, it’s a living thing, and all living things require water to survive — it’s how they get that water that’s a little different.

Light: Bright indirect light is best for indoor air plants, with bright shade preferable for outdoor air plants. Some air plants will be fine in slightly lower light levels, but no air plant thrives in very low light.

Water: Mist with water in a spray bottle a couple times a week, or soak them for about 30 minutes once a week in water. If you choose the soaking option, shake out the excess water from the air plant afterwards, and let it air dry before returning to its display site.

Humidity: Some air plants require more humidity than others, so it’s a bit of an experiment. If you are misting your air plants, that level of humidity should be enough for it to thrive.

Temperature: Typical indoor temperatures are ideal (50-86 degrees)

Bloom: Air plants bloom once in their lifetime, when they are at full maturity — and after blooming, they decline. Bloom color depends upon individual variety but is often a shocking combination of pink and purple.

Leaf color: Depending upon variety, leaves are dark green, gray, gray-green, silver, pale green, red, pink, or burgundy.

Propagation: Just as it’s reaching maturity (right before blooming), the mother plant will put out pups. When the pups are about 1/3 of the size of the mother plant, gently separate them into individual air plants.

Repotting: Just kidding; we thought we’d throw this one in just to see if you’re paying attention. No soil and no “planting” means no repotting, ever.

USDA Hardiness Zones: 9-11, or year-round if indoors.


Top 5 Air Plants

There are over 450 types of air plants, so naming and describing all of them wouldn’t be too practical, but there are varieties of air plants that are the most common and popular. (If you purchase an Air Plant mix from us, you're likely to get one or three or ten of these varieties.) And consider yourself forewarned — air plant varieties don’t really have common names, so we have no choice but to muddle through the botanical Latin (hang in there; we’re all in this together): 

  1. Tillandsia ionanthaArguably the most popular air plant variety, ionantha is tiny in size but mighty in appearance with its stiff leaves. The leaf color is often green but can be tinged with pink or red, and its smaller size makes it prized for terrarium displays.

  2. Tillandsia aeranthos: Another crowd favorite, aeranthos has upright growth with stiff leaves in colors ranging from light green to gray, bronze, purple, and even a blackish shade. It’s easy to maintain and pop in to nearly any kind of display you have in mind.

  3. Tillandsia caput-medusae: If ever there was an air plant that could have a common name, this one’s it — we shall call it the Medusa air plant, inspired by the Greek myth of winged human females with snakes as hair. The green leaves snake out and curl in various directions and patterns, but no worries, these aren’t poisonous and looking at them won’t turn you to stone.

  4. Tillandsia brachycaulos: This one is another great beginner air plant. Its leaves are longer and stiff, and usually green until right before blooming when it morphs into a brilliant red. It’s lovely in terrariums and — surprise! — bridal bouquets.

  5.  Tillandsia xerographica: The Queen of the air plants, xerographica has a full, rounded shape and grows up to several feet in diameter at maturity. Its curly gray-green leaves need a bit less humidity and water than other types of tillandsias, and in its smaller/younger form, it’s ideal as a centerpiece in displays.

     

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    • Katie Elzer-Peters