Horticulture Magazine

Expert Tips To Grow And Care For Air Plants

side view of plants in a terrarium and terracotta planter

Air plants seemingly survive on air alone – but do in fact require more than just air to keep them alive.

You might imagine, when you see these unusual plants hanging in someone’s home, or mounted on a wall, that they are miracles of nature. But contrary to what some people seem to believe, air plants don’t really get all they need from the air. It is true that they do not need soil to grow. But there are other things they do require.

Read on to learn more about what air plants actually need. In this article you will learn more about these fascinating plants and how to grow and care for them in your home. 

What are Air Plants?

First of all, let’s begin by talking about what air plants are. When we talk about air plants, we are talking about a large genus of epiphytic or lithophytic plants that grow on trees or other plants without doing them any harm, or on rocks. 

The genus Tillandsia contains around 650 species of evergreen, perennial plants in the Bromeliaceae family. Many of those species can be grown as air plants inside your home. They are called air plants but you should not make the mistake of thinking that the name means that they only need air to grow. 

The Life Cycle of Air Plants

Air plants have interesting and varied foliage. But what you may not know is that air plants will only flower once in their lives. The duration of the blooms can vary considerably depending on the species, and can last from a few days to a few months. The blooms can be in a wide range of colours, from pink to purple to red. 

Flowering might be the pinnacle of the plants’ life cycles. But it also marks the beginning of the end. Once the plant has flowered, it will eventually die. The good news is that before it does so, around the time of flowering, it will reproduce. 

Depending on the species, an air plant will send out baby air plants, known as ‘pups’ just before, during or after flowering. These baby plants, or ‘pups’ are clones of the parent. They will grow eventually to the same size as their parent plant. 

The ‘pups’ are attached to the parent plant, and early in their growth, are receiving nutrients from it. You can separate the pups from the parent plant but only once these have reached around 1/3 to ½ the size of the parent. Depending on the species, there may be between 2 and 8 of these new plants, so over time, while your original air plants will die, you will be able to increase your air plant stock.

Choosing Air Plants

Tillandsia ionantha close up
Tillandsia ionantha

Now that you understand a little more about what air plants are and their lifecycle, you may be keen to get some for yourself. But which air plants could you choose. As mentioned above, there are around 650 species of Tillandsia to choose from. So how do you begin to narrow down your choices and decide which ones you should get hold of to grow in your home?

Here are just some of the interesting options to consider:

  • T. ionantha – one of the easiest and most popular air plants to grow. 
  • T. maxima – relatively large air plants with big impact.
  • T. cyanea – unlike other air plants this one, the ‘Pink Quill Plant’ can actually be grown in soil as well as without it. 
  • T. aeranthos bergeri – popular for its bright blooms in spring.
  • T. bulbosa – known for its tentacle-like leaves curving out from the bulbous root.
  • T. loliacea – teeny tiny air plants that never grow larger than around an inch and a half tall.
  • T. fasciculata – commonly cultivated air plants with hundreds of varieties and hybrids. 

Where to Grow Air Plants

Tillandsia air plant inside a hanging glass bubble
Air plant (Tillandsia) in a glass bauble.

Air plants are commonly grown indoors, but with many air plants it is theoretically also possible to grow them outdoors over the summer months before moving them indoors in the early autumn. 

Most growers, however, will grow them indoors. And it is increasingly popular to grow them as part of an interior design scheme, often alongside other succulents, cacti and other house plants. They are commonly grown in hanging arrangements, or under glass in terrarium type displays. 

The important things to think about when deciding where and how to grow/ display your air plants are:

  • Temperature.
  • Light.
  • Water
  • and Ventilation

You can find out more about these various different needs and how to make sure you meet them below:

Caring For Air Plants

Caring for air plants is relatively straightforward and easy. But you do need to make sure you get things right when it comes to the four categories mentioned above. 

Temperature Requirements

The first thing to remember is that air plants require relatively warm temperatures. They need the temperatures to be above 12 degrees C at all times, and will enjoy conditions around typical room temperature. They can tolerate higher temperatures too. As long as the relative humidity is high they can survive in temperatures up to around 30 degrees C. 

Light Requirements

Light levels are also very important. You need to consider where air plants are placed carefully to make sure that they are getting enough light, but are not going to be scalded by direct sunlight – especially during the hottest portions of the day. 

Tillandsia need bright but indirect and diffuse light to thrive. Light shade from direct sun is important, especially if your plants are growing under glass. 

Rooms with south or east-facing glazing can be fine, but perhaps with some netting over the window to provide some gentle shading. West-facing rooms may not be ideal because of the hot sun that can shine in later in the day. North facing rooms may be too gloomy and dark. But an air plant may still be fine if positioned close to a north-facing window.

How much light your air plants will tolerate is directly linked to how humid the conditions are. Generally, of the conditions are higher humidity, air plants will cope with more light. It is important to bear in mind how much light air plants are getting when working out water requirements.

Water Requirements

air plants soaking in a glass of water
Soaking air plants

By far the most common mistake when it comes to air plants is getting in wrong when it comes to providing water for your plants. The amount of water required will definitely vary depending on the temperatures and light levels, and the atmospheric humidity in your home. 

Between spring and autumn, it is best to immerse air plants in rainwater for 5-10 minutes around 2-3 times a week. It is better to use rainwater and not tap water especially in hard water areas since the sodium bicarbonate can block the trichomes on the plants which prevents them from absorbing moisture and nutrients. 

Avoid watering plants at all if the temperatures drop to 12 degrees as they can remain wet for too long. It is important to make sure that the plants are positioned so that they can easily shed excess water. And it is vital to make sure that they dry out fully between immersions, ideally remaining wet for no more than 1-3 hours after their soaking.

In warm conditions, or when growing in closed terrariums or cloches, misting plants between immersions can help to prevent dehydration. But this does not alone provide enough water, so you will need to immerse the air plants as well. Make sure you mist around plants to raise humidity uniformly around the plants, rather than spraying the plants themselves and causing water to sit within them. 

Always immerse in water or mist early in the morning to make sure the plants dry fully before nightfall.

Ventilation Requirements

While many people grow air plants in enclosed spaces, it is important to note that air plants evolved in areas with good airflow, and will do best and remain healthiest when they are placed in a reasonably well-ventilated position. 

If you are growing air plants under glass containers, remember that this will create a micro-climate around your air plants. Less air circulation means a longer drying time, and typically higher humidity, so you will likely need to mist less frequently. 

Troubleshooting Air Plant Problems

The most common problem for air plants is overwatering, or allowing water to remain for too long on your plants. Unfortunately, if you overwater, it will often be too late to save it. If you see the base of the plant turning brown or black and leaves are falling out from the centre, then it is likely that it has begun to rot and cannot be saved. 

A plant may also become dehydrated – not only if it is watered infrequently but also if hard water is used over an extended period. If the plant starts shedding leaves, this may be a result of stress due to dehydration. But it can also be a sign of rot.

Brown or bleached leaves are usually a sign that the plant has been exposed to too much direct sunlight and has overheated. Providing more shade and raising the humidity around your plants can prevent further scorch and may allow your air plants to recover. 

Air plants can be very interesting and unusual plants to grow. They can add something to your home’s interior décor and allow you to learn more about these plants and their botanical features. You do have to be careful about temperatures, light levels, watering and ventilation. But if you get these things right then you should find that air plants are relatively easy and hassle-free additions to your indoor garden. 

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