With hundreds of varieties that look like colorful sea creatures or spiky miniature succulents, air plants (Tillandsia spp.) are some of the most striking and easygoing houseplants you can collect. They're also some of the easiest houseplants to care for.
Tillandsia xerographica is one of the largest air plants commonly found at nurseries and plant shops, with long, silvery green leaves that curl dramatically back towards the roots. Tillandsia caput-medusae grows a few long, snakelike green leaves along with blue or red flowers. The green leaves of sun-loving Tillandsia maxima turn pink before producing a spiky, vivid purple flower.
Air plants are epiphytes, like orchids, ferns, and bromeliads. Epiphytic plants are typically rosette-shaped, with flowers growing from a central stem in the middle of a rosette. In the case of air plants, the roots are minimal, and they don’t need soil to grow.
Rather, their roots—and in some cases, as with Spanish moss, scales on the plant’s stems—absorb moisture and nutrients from the air. Without needing to be potted in soil, air plants can be displayed in creative ways that most houseplants can’t.
Best Growing Conditions for Your Air Plant
The most important thing to know about air plants is they should never be planted in soil. They need at least a few hours of bright, filtered light each day, with some of the silver-leaved types that grow in desert climates needing substantially more. On or near a north, east, or west-facing windowsill or within a few feet of a bright, south-facing window can be a great place to display your air plants.
Take care to keep your air plants out of direct sunlight, as the dark-green varieties especially can easily get sunburned in just a few hours of full sun on a hot day.
Air plants can also grow with a good amount of artificial light of no natural light source is available. In terms of humidity, air plants in a more humid environment can tolerate higher levels of light.
Because of this, air plants are great to display on a windowsill; however, take care to ensure that they don’t come into contact with cold drafts from the window, especially in winter. Air plants grow best in environments that don’t drop below 50 degrees in temperature.
Ensure that your air plants are displayed in a spot with good air circulation.
Since air plants pull moisture from the air, a steamy, warm bathroom can be a great place to display your air plants. You can use a single, good-sized specimen to accent a large seashell or a ceramic piece, or mass several different kinds of varying sizes together and arrange them on a large piece of coral or driftwood. You can also hang your air plant from the ceiling in a glass globe, or mount it on the wall in a sleek metal frame.
How to Care for Your Air Plant
In general, it’s a good idea to water your air plants once a week or so. Keep in mind that during warmer, drier, sunnier times of year, you may need to water your air plants more frequently. If the temperature is cooler or the humidity higher in your space, they may need water less often. You can mist your air plant with a spray bottle between waterings in particularly dry weather.
Since there is no soil to water with an air plant, you’ll need to submerge your plants to give them water. Place your air plants face-down in a bowl or sinkful of tepid water and make sure they’re fully submerged. Depending on the tap water in your area, that may work fine, but you’ll get the best results from using spring water or collecting rainwater for this purpose. Soak the plants for five to 10 minutes.
Let your air plants sit in the water for anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, ideally in the early part of the day. Take care not to let them sit in the water too long, as too much water can cause your air plants to rot.
When you’re done soaking them, remove the air plants, hold them gently by the stem end, and give them a gentle shake to release any trapped water. Put them face-down on a towel in bright, indirect light to dry for a few hours. Note that when your air plant is blooming, you still need to water it—but take care not to mist or submerge the inflorescence while doing so.
Fertilize your air plants by spritzing them with an air plant fertilizer or bromeliad fertilizer a couple of times each year. You can also add quarter-strength diluted houseplant fertilizer to the water you dunk your plants in to get your air plants the nutrients they need.
Fertilizing your air plants will help promote the growth of flowers and offsets from which you can grow a new air plant.
A healthy, happy mature air plant will eventually reward you with a beautiful flower. However, each air plant will only bloom once in its lifetime, so enjoy it while you can! First you’ll see a colorful inflorescence that functions like the flower bud; these can last for months and will eventually open to reveal individual flowers. Depending on the type of air plant, the flowers can last for several weeks, while others will only last a few days.
While the flowering is bittersweet, console yourself with what comes next: the chance to care for a new air plant. When blooming is finished, cut off the inflorescence at its base, which will help promote the growth of a pup. It’s a good idea to fertilize your air plant at this point, as it’s concentrating the energy it didn’t expend making a flower into growing a whole new plant.
How to Propagate Your Air Plant
The easiest and quickest way to propagate your air plant is to remove offsets, or pups, that will grow from the base of the mother plant. Anywhere from one to three pups will appear after the plant’s bloom cycle. Depending on the look you’re going for, you may wish to leave the pups on the mother plant to create an air plant cluster.
Step 1: Wait until each pup is at least one-third the size of the mother plant before attempting propagation.
Step 2: While holding the mother plant, gently pull at the base of the pup. Take care not to pull by the leaves, which can cause breakage. If it’s ready to be out on its own, the pup should come off of the mother plant easily without any damage.
Step 3: Give the pups a dunk after separating them from the mother plant. Place them in a spot with good bright, indirect light and care for them as usual.