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10 Things Nobody Tells You About Air Plants

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10 Things Nobody Tells You About Air Plants

November 4, 2022

I’ve never met an air plant that I didn’t think was adorable. Tillandsias are the tribbles of houseplants—no matter whether a variety is fuzzy, furry, spiky, rounded, or has long, trailing foliage that looks like a ponytail, it’s irresistible.

With nearly 600 known varieties of these low-maintenance houseplants which call tropical climates home, there’s an air plant to make any houseplant collector happy. But Tillandsias can be tricky, too. They have a few secrets of their own. Learn them, and your air plants will thrive.

Here are 10 things nobody tells you (but should!) about air plants:

1. An air plant will not grow in soil. Don’t even try it.

Above: Photograph by John Merkl.

Tillandsias are epiphytes, which means that in nature air plants grow on other plants—clinging to tree trunks, for instance—rather than by rooting in the ground. Air plants will grow on bushes, rocks, and shrubs. Other epiphytes include orchids (which grow on tropical trees) and many kinds of ferns.

2. Air plants use roots to attach themselves to things (rather than to absorb nutrients).

Above: Photograph by John Merkl.

You can mount a tillandsia like a trophy to hang on a wall or arrange several together in a single planter suspended from the ceiling.

3. Air plants need sunlight like any other plants.

You can get buy a curly Shirley Temple Air Plant (Tillandsia streptophylla) from Spyloh via Etsy; from \$\1\2. Read more about it at Object of Desire: Curly Tillandsia Houseplant.
Above: You can get buy a curly Shirley Temple Air Plant (Tillandsia streptophylla) from Spyloh via Etsy; from $12. Read more about it at Object of Desire: Curly Tillandsia Houseplant.

It’s a mistake to treat your air plant as if it’s a decorative object rather than a living thing. Just because it’s amiable enough to live in a bowl or on a bookshelf without benefit of soil doesn’t mean it can survive without air, light—or water. Air plants like several hours a day of bright, indirect light.

4. Air plants can’t live on air alone.

Above: Photograph by John Merkl.

Air plants get nutrition by absorbing water through their leaves. A good rule of thumb is to water an air plant once a week. Of course, bend the rule based on the conditions in your own home. If the air in your home is particularly dry, water an air plant more often (every five days) and in a humid environment, water tillandsias every ten days.

5. Air plants will tell you when you they need more—or less—water.

Photograph by John Merkl.
Above: Photograph by John Merkl.

Your air plant will let you know if it needs water more often (the tips of its leaves will turn brown and curl) or if you are over-watering it (its leaves may turn brown or start to look soggy). Be careful—if it turns black, that means it’s rotted and beyond saving.

For step-by-step instructions, see Gardening 101: How to Water an Air Plant.

6. Etsy is a great place to shop for well-priced or unusual varieties of air plants.

An assortment of \24 small Air Plants is \$36 from CTS Airplants via Etsy.
Above: An assortment of 24 small Air Plants is $36 from CTS Airplants via Etsy.

Many Etsy sellers propagate their own air plants, and sell unusual varieties such as fuzzy white Tectorums. Because tillandsias are sturdy, self-contained plants that don’t require soil, they are easy to ship without bruising or harm.

7. You’re not the only one having a hard time identifying your Tillandsia varieties.

Tillandsia harrisii via Air Plant Design Studio.
Above: Tillandsia harrisii via Air Plant Design Studio.

With more than 550 varieties of known air plants, you’d be hard-pressed under any circumstances to keep them straight. Complicating matters, air plant breeders cross varieties so frequently that “you are never really going to see two air plants that are identical,” says Ryan Lesseig, co-owner with his wife Meriel of Tampa, FL-based Air Plant Design Studio.

To complicate matters further two plants of the same variety may look completely different, depending on factors such as climate. “The same type will look different in Florida and in California,” says Lesseig.

Read more in Air Plants 101: How to ID a Tillandsia.

8. An air plant may flower—but only once in its lifetime.

Available in three sizes, a Classic Aerium kit is a &#8\2\20;modern glass vessel and contains a mixture of natural materials such as sand, moss, lichen, rock and wood.&#8\2\2\1; Prices range from \$\16 to \$\28 depending on size at Pistils Nursery.
Above: Available in three sizes, a Classic Aerium kit is a “modern glass vessel and contains a mixture of natural materials such as sand, moss, lichen, rock and wood.” Prices range from $16 to $28 depending on size at Pistils Nursery.

“Depending on the species, these blossoms last from a few days to a few months, and can be a whole variety of beautiful bright colors, like pink, red and purple. 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,” notes retailer Pistils Nursery.

9. Propagate an air plant by harvesting its “pups.”

A Bulbosa Air Plant is \$8 to \$\2\2 depending on the size at Pistils Nursery.
Above: A Bulbosa Air Plant is $8 to $22 depending on the size at Pistils Nursery.

“Just before, during or after flowering, depending on the species, your air plant will reproduce by sending out from two to eight ‘pups’. These baby air plants, which start out very small, will eventually grow into their own mother plants,” says Pistils Nursery. “Pups can safely be separated from the mother plant when they’re about ⅓ to ½ its size.”

10. Air plants come from tropical climes and will appreciate warm temperatures in your home.

A Shirley Temple Air Plant (Tillandsia streptophylla). Photograph by Spyloh via Etsy. Read more about it at Object of Desire: Curly Tillandsia Houseplant.
Above: A Shirley Temple Air Plant (Tillandsia streptophylla). Photograph by Spyloh via Etsy. Read more about it at Object of Desire: Curly Tillandsia Houseplant.

The happiest air plants live in temperatures that range from 50 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. They will thrive with temperature fluctuations—a 10-degree drop that mimics the conditions at nightfall in the Central American regions they call home is ideal.

For more growing tips, see Air Plants: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design in our curated guides to Houseplants 101. Read more:

N.B.: This post has been updated with new links; it was first published Jan. 2, 2019.

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