Easy, Breezy Air Plants

For gardeners who don’t like to get their hands dirty, an ideal world would include plants that seem to grow in thin air. There’d be no worries about soil quality, no demanding watering or fertilizing schedules, and none of the other issues associated with ground-bound gardens.

Air plants bring that world within reach. 

Air plants, or Tillandsias, are well adapted to life without soil, getting the nutrients and moisture they need largely from the environment. There are about 600 species of the evergreen, perennial plant. All are native to a wide range of countries in the Americas known as the Neotropics, from southern parts of the United States (Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, and California) to Argentina and Chile.

Tropical epiphyte with blossom

Like other epiphytes (plants belonging to 83 families in all and including ferns, bromeliads, orchids, and lichen), air plants can grow on top of other plants — but they’re not parasites. They use their wiry roots to anchor themselves to tree trunks and limbs, cacti (itself an epiphyte), rocks (especially in drier regions), and other surfaces, including man-made structures. 

With their roots clinging elsewhere, air plants have a unique way of taking in nutrients. Trichomes, which are tiny, scaly structures on their leaves, act like sponges to absorb water vapor and dissolved minerals from airborne dust and debris.

In addition to being unusual, air plants are often prized for their showy flowers, which bloom in an incredible range of shapes, sizes and nearly iridescent colors, depending on the species.

Some produce a single flower, others, a cluster. Either way, the display is limited to a few days or weeks, and once the air plant has bloomed it will never flower again.

That doesn’t mean the plant is dead, though. On average, air plants last two to five years and some indoor specimens have made it past the decade mark.

Perhaps best of all, after many air plants have flowered they produce a bonus — a next generation called pups. The pups can be separated from the base of the air plant and grown on their own.

On display

Because air plants don’t have to live in pots, options for exhibiting them can stretch your imagination. Sure, you can buy air plant cages or holders, but why not branch out into these ideas:

  • Use glue, fishing line, or wire to securely attach your air plants to driftwood or bark.
  • Make a terrarium. Fill the bottom of a glass vessel with pebbles (for drainage) then add a layer of sphagnum moss (to retain moisture). Arrange your air plants on top.
  • Repurpose a large seashell by placing air plants inside. Make sure the shell is big enough for air to circulate around the plants. Cramped plants are susceptible to rot.
  • Fill a clear glass globe with colored sand or pebbles then tuck air plants inside. 
  • You can even make air plant refrigerator magnets. It just takes a dab of adhesive to glue the plant to the magnet, and you’re set.

Low care requirements

Air plants thrive on air, but not on neglect. Despite their self-reliant character, once you get them home, they’ll count on you for the right kind of care.

Remember, except for xeric air plants (which grow in the desert) their natural habitat is warm and humid all year long. And while it’s probably not possible to replicate the tropics in your living room, you can create conditions that will promote air plant growth:

  • Don’t subject air plants to the scorching afternoon sun. They prefer bright, indirect sunlight, meaning east or north-facing windows are best. 
  • Air plants prefer warm temperatures, around 65°F to 80°F.  They also like consistency. Keep them away from cold drafts and heat sources.
  • Instead of being watered, air plants favor a good soaking. During warm weather, soak your air plant in a container filled with room-temperature water for a couple of hours once a week; do it more frequently when it’s cold outside. After soaking, gently shake the air plant to remove excess water then place it upside down for a few minutes. This helps ensure no water collects at the base, which can cause rot.
  • If your home is dry (less than 50% to 60% humidity) mist your air plant lightly two to three times a week. Grouping air plants together can help their immediate environment stay more humid. That said, they also need good air circulation to avoid rot.
  • You won’t need to feed your air plant very often. A diluted orchid fertilizer solution once or twice a month during the spring and summer growing season should do the trick. 
  • Air plants are generally resistant to pests and diseases, so you can put the harmful sprays away.
  • Get creative! Since air plants don't require soil, you have endless display options. Hang them in terrariums, mount them on driftwood or cork bark, or place them in decorative bowls filled with pebbles for air circulation.

For waterwise gardeners who like their plants on the peculiar side, prefer something that’s low maintenance, and are happy with a once-in-a-lifetime flower show (the plant’s lifetime, that is), air plants can breathe new life into your décor. 

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