Looking for an undemanding, easy to care for houseplant? Air plants don’t even require soil. How easy is that? Bring a touch of nature to your home or office with these unique, non-toxic plants. While air plants are pretty hardy (read: hard to kill) they do require light, water, and air circulation. Here’s how to keep air plants happy and healthy as well as all of the creative ways you can display them.
What Is an Air Plant?
Native to tropical parts of the Americas, Tillandsias are commonly referred to as air plants because of their propensity to cling onto rocks, bark, tree branches, telephone wires, and more for physical support. Instead of using their roots to absorb nutrients like most plants, air plants’ roots are solely used for attachment purposes. Part of the pineapple family (Bromeliaceae), most species of Tillandsias are epiphytes, which means they take in nutrients from the air and water through the fuzzy, hair-like trichomes on their leaves. The strap-shaped or slender triangle-shaped leaves grow in a rosette pattern that helps them collect nutrients and water. Most species in this genus can sprout bright, vibrant tubular or funnel-shaped red, yellow, purple, or pink flowers. ProFlowers says “air plants range in size from two inches to seven feet so research your variety to find out more about how big it will grow.”
Types of Air Plants
Speaking of species, there are hundreds of species and varieties of air plants. Tillandsia velutina is named for its soft, velvety leaves which turn from green to red when in bloom. T. ionantha, T. xerographica, T. caput-medusae, and T. circinnata are some of the most popular species. Mesic species prefer humid habitats, while xeric species prefer dryer, desert-like conditions. How can you tell whether your air plant is mesic or xeric? According to the Airplant Man, “In general, xeric (high sun/low water) species evolved to have a silvery-gray appearance with fluffy trichomes on their leaves to reflect sunlight and conserve water. The mesic (lower sun/higher water) species tend to have larger, greener, and smoother leaves to better capture limited sunlight in the forest canopy.” In short, you don’t have to water the ones with the silver-looking leaves as much as the greener ones. Not sure which kind you have or want? Here are some common varieties.
Where to Buy Air Plants
These inexpensive plants usually cost under $10 and can be found at your local garden center or nursery. Commercially sold air plants are usually already fully grown. Since air plants are so sturdy and don’t require soil, they can be shipped without bruising or harm. Order air plants online at Air Plant Supply Co., Air Plant Shop, on Etsy, or even Amazon. All of these sites also sell cute ways to display your air plants, which we’ll get into soon. Meanwhile, contrary to the name, air plants cannot live on air alone. Here’s how to take care of your air plants.
How to Water Air Plants
You probably haven’t done this to any of your other houseplants, but air plants like to be dunked. Submerging the plant in tap, rain, or bottled water once a week for 6-12 hours completely re-hydrates it, unfurling curly leaves and plumping them up a bit. If using tap water, let it sit for about 15 minutes to let the chlorine levels dissipate so it doesn’t clog the plant’s sensitive leaves. Do not use distilled water, as it pulls all the nutrients out of the plant through osmosis. Also, make sure there aren’t traces of soap or anything else in your soaking container. The oils on your hands can also disturb the leaves, so it’s best if you avoid touching them directly if possible.
The tectorum and xerographica species are more sensitive and prefer spraying. This method also works if it’s too difficult to remove your air plant from its container. Shower the plant until it is dripping wet two to three times a week. We’re going for drenched, not a light misting.
One last but important point—after you water them, you have to let them dry completely to avoid root rot. Hold the plant upside down and gently shake off excess water before placing on a towel in a bright spot with air circulation. Let it dry for four hours before returning to the container.
How Much Light Do Air Plants Need?
Much like every other plant, air plants require sunlight to photosynthesize. No matter which species of air plant you own, it will appreciate bright, indirect sunlight within a few feet of a well-lit window. Generally speaking, the fuzzier the plant, the more light it can handle. The greener it is, the less light it wants.
Since air plants absorb nutrients from debris and dust in the air, they don’t need to be fertilized unless you’re trying to make them bloom. The Airplant Man recommends waiting a few weeks before fertilizing new plants and using a Bromeliad fertilizer (17-8-22) twice a month. Sunset warns not to overdo it since plants can burn from too much fertilizer. They recommend feeding Tillandsias “monthly from March through October with an orchid fertilizer diluted to quarter strength” by dunking the plants in the dilution or thoroughly wetting the leaves.
Fresh Air and Circulation
These tropical and subtropical plants don’t really care what temperature it is, as long as its between 50 and 90 degrees. Just remember that the hotter and drier the air, the more often you’ll have to water. While terrariums are a popular vessel, they aren’t doing air plants any favors, because as the name implies, air plants like fresh air. The wet, stagnant conditions of a terrarium encourage root rot. Aeriums, however, do allow air to flow. With that in mind, read on for some cute ways to display air plants.
Unfortunately, most Bromeliads only bloom once in their lifetime. Blossoms last anywhere from a few days to a few months, depending on the species. According to Gardenista, “Flowering is the peak of the air plant life cycle, but also marks the beginning of the plant’s old age—after it flowers, the plant will eventually die.” They go on to say that “Just before, during, or after flowering, depending on the species, your air plant will reproduce by sending out from two to eight pups” which can be safely be separated for propagating when they’re about a third or half of the mother plant’s size.
Creative Display Ideas for Air Plants
These versatile babies make incredible, living art displays. While a terrarium could suffocate these circulation-loving plants, an aerium glass enclosure allows for some airflow. The decor opportunities are limitless—hang them on the wall in a sconce, macrame, or glass planter. Put them in a tiny holder, like this cute pineapple pot, this mermaid, or these dinos. Heck, you can even wear an air plant as a necklace!
The Airplant Man sells a frame in lots of different sizes and colors so you can create a vertical air plant garden indoors our outdoors. (He also has a really cool lantern!). Simply arrange the shapes and colors the way you want, then pull them into place from the underside. Their leaves keep them in place, or you can keep pulling them through the back to remove. We recommend this brand because it is lightweight and waterproof, but also because it uses powder-coated aluminum with stainless steel cable, so you can submerge the entire frame when it comes time to water. Otherwise, you’ll want to spray your frame as directed above.