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With hundreds of varieties that look like colorful sea creatures or spiky succulents, air plants (Tillandsia) are some of the most striking houseplants you can collect—and they're also among the easiest to grow. Thanks to their resilient growing habits, air plants can thrive without soil.
Like orchids, ferns, and bromeliads, air plants are epiphytes that grow on another plant but aren't parasitic. Epiphytic plants are typically rosette-shaped, with flowers growing from a central stem. Air plants have minimal roots that absorb moisture and nutrients from the air. Without needing soil, they can be displayed in creative ways that most houseplants can't.
- Botanical Name: Tillandsia
- Common Name: Air plant
- Plant Type: Evergreen perennial
- Mature Size: 2–18 inches high
- Sun Exposure: Bright, indirect light
- Soil Type: N/A
- Soil pH: N/A
Water air plants about once per week. You may need to water them more frequently during warmer, drier, and sunnier times of the year, and it's helpful to mist your plant during these seasons. In cooler temperatures and high humidity, air plants require less water.
Since there's no soil, you'll need to submerge your plant to give it water. Place your plant face-down in a bowl of tepid water, and make sure it's fully submerged. Depending on the quality in your area, you may be able to use tap water—but you'll get the best results with spring water or collected rainwater.
Let your air plant sit in water between 20 minutes and an hour, ideally in the early part of the day. Take care not to let it sit too long, as too much water can cause air plants to rot.
After soaking, remove your air plant (holding it by the stem end) and give it a gentle shake to release water. Place it face-down on a towel in bright, indirect light to dry for a few hours. When your air plant is blooming, you still need to water it—but take care not to mist or submerge the inflorescence, or bloom spikes, while doing so.
Fertilize your air plant by spritzing it with a bromeliad or air plant fertilizer a few times per year. You can also add quarter-strength diluted houseplant fertilizer to the water when submerging your plant.
Best Growing Conditions for Air Plants
Air plants should never be planted in soil. They need at least a few hours of bright, indirect light each day, with some of the silver-leaved types from desert climates needing substantially more. A great place to display your air plant is near a north-, east-, or west-facing window or within a few feet of a bright, south-facing window.
Take care to keep your air plant 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 thrive under an artificial grow light without sun, and in humid environments, they tolerate higher levels of light. Because of this, air plants are great to display on a windowsill; however, ensure they don't come into contact with cold drafts from the window (especially in winter). Air plants grow best in environments above 50 degrees.
Since air plants pull moisture from the air, a steamy bathroom is a great place to display your plant. If your plant is located in the bathroom, it may require less water: Look for signs of overwatering like dropping leaves, mushy roots, or a dark-colored base.
When displaying air plants, you can use wire, plant-safe glue (affixed only to the plant's base), or tuck the roots into a surface. Accent a large seashell or ceramic piece with a single mature specimen, or gather smaller variants together on coral or driftwood. You can also hang your air plant from the ceiling in a glass globe or mount them inside frames on the wall.
Types of Air Plants
While there are hundreds of species within the Tillandsia genus, there are a few more common types of air plants you may encounter. Tillandsia stricta is perhaps the most recognized variant, which grows with tall, thin green leaves (often mounted to shells and driftwood at nurseries).
Tillandsia xerographica is one of the largest air plants found at plant shops, featuring long silvery-green leaves that curl dramatically back toward the roots. Tillandsia caput-medusae grows a few wavy, snakelike green leaves along with blue or red flowers. The green leaves of the sun-loving Tillandsia maxima turn pink before producing a spiky, vivid purple flower.
How to Propagate Air Plants
The easiest way to propagate your air plant is to remove offsets, or pups, that grow from the base of the mother plant. 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 propagating.
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 in water after separating them from the mother plant. Place them in a spot with bright, indirect light, and care for them as usual.
Common Problems With Air Plants
Air plants are very easy to care for, but one growing problem to watch out for is an infestation of small pests. Here's how to treat pests to keep your plants growing healthy:
Mealybugs and Scale
Air plants are susceptible to pests that can stunt their growth (or even kill them). The most common pests on air plants are mealybugs and scale. If it's the former, you'll know immediately: Mealybugs leave a waxy, cotton-like substance on your plant's leaves. Scale insects, which look like tiny, dark beatles, are easier to spot. Both pests can be removed by dipping a cotton swab in rubbing alcohol and gently rubbing the plant's leaves.
How to Get Air Plants to Bloom
Many healthy, mature air plants will eventually reward you with a beautiful flower. However, air plants only bloom once, so enjoy it while you can! Use air plant fertilizer during waterings and provide plenty of sunlight to encourage your plant to bloom.
First, you'll see a colorful inflorescence that functions as a flower bud; these can last for months, and eventually open to reveal individual flowers. Depending on the variant, flowers can last for several weeks, while others 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 to promote a pup's growth. 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.
Are Air Plants Easy to Care For?
Air plants are some of the most low-maintenance houseplants, requiring just a bit of water, sunlight, and a few simple care steps to thrive.
How Fast do Air Plants Grow?
Air plants are slow growers. They can take up to five years to mature, and growing air plants from seeds can take between two and three years to produce a small plant.
How Long Can Air Plants Live?
Different species vary in lifespan, but in general, air plants can survive for about eight years. Once your air plants flower, they will begin to produce several offsets before declining.
What’s the Difference Between Air Plants and Succulents?
Succulents have fleshy leaves for retaining water from their roots, while air plants are a harder, drier species that hold water in their epiphytic root bases.
Can Air Plants Grow Indoors?
Air plants are easy to grow indoors, as these species prefer indirect light and can survive long periods (up to two weeks) without water.
Yard and Garden: Control Scale and Mealybugs in Houseplants. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. January 16, 2020