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With hundreds of varieties that look like colorful sea creatures or spiky succulents, air plants are some of the most striking houseplants you can collect. They're also among the easiest to grow.
Like orchids, ferns, and bromeliads, air plants are epiphytes, meaning they grow on another plant but aren't parasitic. Epiphytic plants are typically rosette-shaped, with flowers growing from a central stem in the middle. In the case of air plants, the roots are minimal, and they don't need soil to grow—hence, their name. Their roots 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.
- Botanical Name: Tillandsia
- Common Name: Air plants
- Plant Type: Epiphyte
- Mature Size: 2–12 inches high
- Sun Exposure: Bright, indirect light
- Soil Type: N/A
- Soil pH: N/A
- Toxicity: Non-toxic
In general, it's a good idea to water your air plant once a week or so. Keep in mind that you may need to water it more frequently during warmer, drier, sunnier times of the year. If the temperature is cooler or the humidity higher in your space, they may need water less often. You can mist your air plant between waterings in, particularly dry weather.
Since there's no soil to water with an air plant, 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 tap water in your area, it may work fine, but you'll get the best results from using spring water or collecting rainwater for this purpose.
Let your air plant sit in water for anywhere from 20 minutes to 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.
When you're done soaking, remove the air plant, hold it gently by the stem end, and give it a gentle shake to release any trapped water. Put it 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 plant by spritzing it 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 plant in to provide the nutrients it needs.
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 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.
Best Growing Conditions for Air Plants
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. A great place to display your air plant is on or near a north-, east-, or west-facing windowsill 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 also grow with a good amount of artificial light if no natural light 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 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.
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 gather several different kinds together 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.
Air Plant Varieties
Tillandsia xerographica is one of the largest air plants commonly found at nurseries and plant shops, featuring long silvery-green leaves that curl dramatically back toward the roots. Tillandsia caput-medusae grows a few long, 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 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 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 Growing Problems
Unfortunately, air plants are susceptible to pests that can stunt your plant's growth (or even kill it). The most common types of pests you'll find on your air plant are mealy bugs or scale. If it's the former, you'll know immediately because they will leave a waxy cotton-like substance on your plant's leaves. If you have a scale infestation, you'll be able to see the bugs because they look like tiny dark beetles. Luckily, they're easy to spot. As long as you don't ignore the problem, your plants should still be able to thrive in your home.
Yard and Garden: Control Scale and Mealybugs in Houseplants. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. January 16, 2020