Air plants. They’re unconventional, they’re unique, and they’re some of the most popular houseplants out there right now. Their vibrant leaves may have caught your eye before—in bowls, dangling from string, even in their own, strange planters. But most people don’t know much about them, such as where they come from, what they like, or how to take care of them.
Luckily, we at Rooted are here to show you the ropes. So if you’re wondering whether to continue… don’t air on the side of caution. Read on!
What Are Air Plants?
Air plants, known scientifically as Tillandsia, are epiphytes that belong to the bromeliad family of plants. If that means absolutely nothing to you, just nod along and pretend that it does. Either way, we’ll explain further.
Air plants get their name not because they fall from the sky or float in the wind. They get their name because they absorb nutrients through the air. Like all epiphytes, this means that they grow on top of other plants and rocks. It also means they’re able to grow without soil, making them a peculiar plant to have around the house.
Air plants' roots are designed to anchor the plant to other objects, and some don’t have roots at all. Their stems and leaves often have scale-like structures that are what they use for absorbing nutrients. No matter what the biological reasons for the look… the result is simply fabulous.
Where Do They Come From?
With over 500 different species of Tillandsia, it’s a very large genus. They come from diverse environments, from deserts to tropics, and from mountaintops to swamps. However, they’re mostly found in South and Central America, although they can reach the southern United States as well.
It’s important to keep their natural environments in mind when caring for air plants. Desert dwellers will react to conditions differently than tropical Tillandsia.
Types of Air Plants
As we just mentioned, there are a whole bunch of different air plants. However, some are more popular as houseplants than others. Luckily, there’s great diversity among them, so you’ll be sure to find the perfect plant for your indoor garden.
Tillandsia brachycaulos: The brachycaulos is a vibrant type of air plant native to Mexico, Venezuela, and other Central American countries. It grows in tropical regions, making it a mesic air plant. Although its vibrant leaves are often bright green, the Red Abdita has a red tint on the leaves that adds an interesting splash of color.
Tillandsia ionantha: Ionantha, also called a Sky Plant, is known for its spiky leaves that will pop in any room. One of the most popular air plants for terrarium displays, this species can be found in Mexico, Costa Rica, and parts of South America.
Tillandsia capitata: Our third air plant on the list grows both on trees and among rocks. It’s one of the most versatile plants there is and is great for beginners. Plus, the soft, velvety leaves separate it from other air plants, and its light green leaves and purple blooms give it a distinct, subtle beauty.
Tillandsia xerographica: This air plant’s name translates to “dry writing” in Greek. Also known as Xeros, these are some of the largest air plants there are. They’re native to Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and can be found high in the canopy of the forest, clinging to large trees. Xerographicas are sometimes called ‘The King of Air Plants', and can grow over 3 feet in size. Other air plants have tried to take this title - but if you come at the king, you best not miss.
Tillandsia stricta: The tillandsia stricta is a hard one to pin down. They kind of all do their own thing, you know? It grows in many different climates, from the desert sands to the tropical forests, and due to this, grows in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. The Stricta Midnight, for example, is nearly black in coloring, while most other varieties come in green, with colorful blue, purple, red, and yellow blooms. Stricta is exclusively from eastern South America, and is found as far north as Venezuela, and as far south as Brazil and northern Argentina.
Caring for Air Plants
When you look at an air plant for the first time, it’s almost unnerving, like you’re looking at a plant that’s been separated from its soil and roots. Surely this plant, attached to nothing, won’t last long, right? Surprisingly, this is not the case! Air plants are some of the most resilient houseplants out there. If you pay attention to what they need, they're sure to grow for years to come.
Air Plants and The Elements
Air plants are a forgiving houseplant, but they do need three main things to survive: light, air circulation, and water. Most tillandsia prefer bright indirect sunlight, so it’s best to keep them near a south, east, or west-facing window. You want to avoid direct sunlight, as air plants may burn.
In nature, air plants enjoy habitats high in humidity. They prefer humidity indoors too, which is why it’s good to mist them with a spray bottle. However, as we said above, air plants need circulation, so if you’re keeping yours in jars or terrariums, it’s prudent to take them out and leave them out from time to time, especially after watering.
How To Water Air Plants
Watering air plants is very different from watering traditional plants that grow in soil. An air plant's roots are used exclusively as an anchor, not as a means of consuming water. Instead, they use trichomes—those scale-like structures mentioned earlier. Trichomes are able to trap moisture, providing the plant with water. They also lower plant temperature and reflect radiation.
There are three main ways gardeners can water their air plants.
- Misting: The first method is misting. Simply take a spray bottle, fill it with water, and spray your plants, allowing them to be covered in a mist. If you’re exclusively misting your air plants, it should be done once a day at least. Some gardeners even recommend rinsing or submerging on top of misting, as misting doesn’t provide enough water. But if you can’t move your air plants to a sink once a week, misting may be the best option.
- Rinsing: Rinsing is the second method. It’s a form of soaking, but it’s quicker, and the perfect thing to do if you don’t have at least 30 minutes to an hour for a full submerging session. Just take your air plants to a faucet and rinse them one by one for at least 15 seconds. When you’re done, you want to make sure they’re completely dry by turning them upside down and letting the excess water drip off. They may not be able to “breathe” properly if they are damp
- Submerging: Submerging is the universal go-to method for watering air plants. Find a sink, a bowl, or a tub, and simply place your air plants in it so that they are fully submerged in the water. Then, leave them there for at least 30 minutes to an hour. Once you’re done, leave them on a paper towel in the sun to ensure they are fully dried off. You’ll want to submerge your plants to water them once a week in the summer, and every other week in the winter.
You’ll want to research your exact species of tillandsia, so you know what it likes when it comes to watering. Some tropical Air Plants will prefer more water than others, but most are fairly resilient. Curled or rolled leaves, as well as dimming foliage, can be a sign that an air plant needs water.
Get Creative: Decorating With Air Plants
This is where things get fun. As long as you’re providing your plant with its three basic needs, you can hang or place your Air Plants anywhere. From standing planters and wall planters to terrariums, bowls, and strings, these little things are sure to add vibrant life to any home. So grab your favorite species of tillandsia, and have a ball! Perhaps an Air Plant Ball?
Tillandsia | North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox
How do you grow air plants? | University of New Hampshire
Air Plants | Home & Garden Information Center | Clemson University
Home - Air Plant (Tillandsia) | Research Guides at New York Botanical Garden
Evolution of Mesic and Xeric Habits in Tillandsia and Vriesea (Bromeliaceae) | Department of Botany, Washington State University
Tillandsia (Air Plants) | Penn State University
All About Air Plants | Iowa State University
Air Plant - University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences