Air plants are unusual, unique, and popular houseplants. They grow and reproduce without any soil. This distinctive growth habit means these fun houseplants have some special considerations.
What are Air Plants?
Air plants are members of the diverse Tillandisa genus which is in the bromeliad family. In their native habitat of tropical and subtropical North and South America, these epiphytic plants will be found clinging to trunks and branches of other plants or anything else they can sit on including rocks and buildings. While they use other plants to sit on, they do not harm or take from their host.
They collect all the water they need through specialized cells on their leaves called trichomes that allow the efficient absorption of any water from the air or rain.
They vary widely in size and range from the familiar Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) which can be found draping from trees in the southeastern United States to ball moss (T. recurvata) which can be seen clinging to telephone wires, fences, or just about anything else in Central America, to the larger, more colorful species of T. ionantha, T. xerographica, T. capitata or T. bulbosa, all of which are typically referred to as air plants.
Air plants grow without soil. This means they can be grown just about anywhere indoors that receives bright, indirect light. Place them in trays or specialized hangers, grow them in terrariums, or set them in sea shells or glass globes, vases, or dishes. How they are displayed in the home is often only limited by someone’s creativity!
The watering method and frequency for air plants looks much different than the typical houseplant. Plants perform best with consistent and abundant moisture which they receive from the humid air and rains in their native habitat. With no soil and much drier conditions in the average home, providing that consistent moisture can be challenging (unless you have a greenhouse).
Spraying or misting on a regular basis does not provide enough moisture on a consistent basis to keep these plants healthy. Water air plants by submerging them in room temperature water for about 30 to 60 minutes. Then gently shake them out well to prevent water from pooling in the leaves, which will lead to rot. Place them upside down for about 30 minutes and as long as 3 hours to allow plants to thoroughly dry. Then they can be returned to their growing location.
Allow water to sit overnight to reach room temperature and to allow the chlorine to dissipate, which can cause brown leaf tips if not done. Once the excess water has drained, return them to its location. The frequency of watering can vary by season and conditions, but in warm, bright conditions, water once a week and in the cooler, darker conditions watering can be reduced to every two weeks.
Air plants can benefit from some fertilizer. Simply add a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer at half or quarter strength to the water every third or fourth time they are watered.
Air plants can be moved outdoors when the danger of frost has passed. This is typically mid-May in most of Iowa. Place them outdoors in a bright, but shady location. They can be grown in part-shade if plants are protected from the late-day sun.
Water and fertilize them in the same way as done indoors, unless humidity and natural rains are keeping plants well hydrated and green.
Bring plants back indoors before temperatures dip below freezing at night. In much of Iowa, this is typically mid-to-late September.
Air plants will flower when provided good moisture and bright, indirect light. Flowers vary in color and shape but tend to be bright pinks, purples, and reds and rise out of the center of the plant. Like all bromeliads, plants die after flowering but new offsets will form to replace the original plant.
In their native habitat, air plants often propagate by seed. The small airborne seeds only form when plants have sufficient cross-pollination, which is difficult indoors.
Air plants propagate easily by division. As plants grow, they form offsets, often called “pups.” Gently separate the offsets to propagate new plants that can be shared with friends.