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The name “air plant” makes you think that these unique soilless growing plants just need air. Well, that’s easy. I have air! As it turns out, that’s not all they need. Air plants actually need care and attention, especially if you want to keep them thriving in your space. When my most recent air plant bit the dust, so to speak, I thought it was finally time to really research this topic. This guide covers all aspects of air plant care, as well as, the many different kinds of air plants and their needs.
So, What Are Air Plants?
Simply, air plants are epiphytes, meaning that they will grow without soil. But really, they will not grow in soil, so don’t try potting. In nature, they typically find their homes on trees, rocks, bushes, and even buildings, mostly in tropical environments.
In your home, they love to make their home in glass terrariums, or a variety of sturdy structures like driftwood, frames or copper wire. While they can be relatively low maintenance, indoors they will require a little help to get enough moisture and nutrition. Here are some general rules for how to care for air plants.
Air Plant Care
There are several very important aspects of taking care of air plants, including pruning, fertilizing, watering, placement, light, and more. We cover them all below.
Watering Air Plants
In nature, these plants will pull moisture and nutrients from the air instead of the soil. But, this does not mean that they are a hands-off plant. A watering routine is possibly the most important aspect of air plant care.
They are so often found in more humid, tropical climates. We do not all keep our living rooms at the same humidity and temperatures as the jungles of South America, so it will be important to determine what kind of climate you are bringing your plants into. More dry environments will require more frequent watering. Variants like changing seasons, heaters, humidifiers, fans, and proximity to direct light will all affect your plant’s watering needs.
Start here, then adjust as you assess your plant’s needs.
How to Water Air Plants
First off, pond water, rain water, or spring water (can be bottled) is preferred. When using tap water, allow it to sit out for a few hours first (long enough for any chlorine to dissipate.) You should avoid using distilled or softened water. This can result in a lack of nutrients and an abundance of salt build-up.
A good general rule: Varieties of darker color will require more moisture and are more susceptible to sun damage.
Dunk and soak plants in a sink or bowl for 1-2 hours. Shake off excess water and allow to fully dry on a cloth. It should take about 3 hours to dry completely. Taking much longer can be a sign of overwatering. Good air circulation can also be a factor in drying time.
The process can be repeated every 2-3 weeks for most plants.
This method is less recommended on its own but is usually as a supplement between soaking as you determine the amount of moisture your plants need. Spray lightly with a spray bottle so that each plant is moistened all over, but not to the point of dripping. Set plants on a towel to dry completely. Repeat every few days, as needed.
Look For The Signs:
Overwatering – If you begin to see darkness on the root and base of your plant, you may be seeing root rot as a result of overwatering. The base may also start to deteriorate and fall off from the base.
Underwatering – curling leaves or browning from the tips are sure signs that you will need to water more often. Still, always allow plants to dry completely on a towel.
Light – Outdoor and Indoor plants enjoy bright, indirect light. Be aware that while some direct sunlight is ok, extended time in direct sun can dry out and scorch leaves. Many people love air plants because of their ability to grow almost anywhere, even a basement office with little to no natural light. That they do not need light at all, however, is a bold-faced misconception. If you do not have access to natural light, your air plants can thrive under artificial light. Full-spectrum fluorescent light is best. They should be placed no closer than 6″ from the bright light.
Temperature & Humidity
Temperature is a fairly easy one. Most air plants enjoy the same range of temperatures that we do. That is between 40-90 degrees F.
Humidity becomes a larger issue for most indoor air plants. They enjoy humidity levels between 50-70%. The average home falls between 40-60% and winter conditions, especially when heaters are running inside, can quickly dry out your home. Humidifiers, extra watering, and careful placement (away from heaters and direct light) can help to counteract this. Remember, these plants like the steamy, steamy rainforest! Most of us are not living in tropical hothouses.
If the bottom leaves begin to look yellow or limp, they can be peeled off. Browning leaf tips can also be trimmed. Remember that browning tips can be a sign of dryness. Roots can also be trimmed, but be careful not to damage the base of the plant.
Fertilizing Air Plants
Fertilizing, or lack of, will most likely not make or break your plant’s survival. But, like all plants, they will be more happy and healthy with regular fertilizing. It is easy enough to purchase air plant or bromeliad fertilizer, but you also can use any water-soluble fertilizer, diluted to 1/4 strength.
Whichever method of watering you choose, simply add the fertilizer to the water. It’s recommended to fertilize air plants once a month to promote health and blooming.
If you are using pond or fish tank water, there is no need to fertilize.
Air Plant Types
I have never met an air plant that I didn’t instantly fall in love with, and there are so many kinds! Some are slick and shiny, some thick and fuzzy, long spindly, or twirly and bushy. And, I was shocked to find that you can purchase most of them on Amazon! That’s easy.
- Tillandsia Ionantha is hardy, small, and one of the most colorful air plants when it blooms. Its shoots can range from pink, blue, or purple.
- Tillandsia Usneoides is commonly known as Spanish Moss. This curly plant can be found draping from large trees in tropical and subtropical climates. It can require a great deal of water but can be difficult to remove from its perch, so misting may be required.
- Tillandsia caput-medusae is also known as Head of Medusa. These have thick and sturdy, snake-like leaves. These can withstand more strong sunlight than many other air plants.
- Tillandsia Andreana grows long wispy leaves. Because of this, you will need to make sure this air plant is getting enough water. It may require extra spraying between soaks.
- Tillandsia Xerographica are possibly the coolest looking variety, in my opinion. Their bulbous growth pattern compliments a terrarium so perfectly. This air plant is one of the few that can tolerate direct or indirect sunlight.
- Tillandsia Ionantha Huamelula (Maxima) can grow to be quite large, 4-5 inches tall. When exposed to more light, they can show a lovely peach coloring on their leaves.
- Tillandsia Cyanea (pink quill) – Ready to forget everything you thought you knew? This little guy is the only Tillandsia that can be grown in soil! It prefers very loose soil which will allow proper aeration. You will still want to water and fertilize this plant by misting to avoid root rot.
- Tillandsia Chiapensis are gorgeous and often large. This plant produces sturdy, velvety, almost succulent- like leaves and a pink spike with a purple bloom.
- Tillandsia Bulbosa – I adore these for their otherworldly, sea monster aesthetic. Their leaves are slender and smooth and new pups grow directly from the base. If left, these plants can form a large clump.
- Tillandsia Tectorum could accurately be described as precious. They are often quite small and resemble fuzzy little puffballs. It is recommended that this variety not be soaked. They can easily become overwatered. Try spraying every 1-3 weeks instead.
A note about blooming
Most air plant varieties bloom only once in their lives. So, if you have cared for your plants well and are lucky enough to be gifted with a bloom, the bad news is that your plant may be near the end of its life cycle. The good news is, your plant is about to be a mother! The mother plant will produce one, sometimes multiple, pups that can be removed. If you happen to purchase an air plant that is already blooming and its life span is short, brand new air plant babies are not a bad consolation.
So, to sum it all up, air plants are wonderful and can grow just about anywhere! While they certainly can be a unique low maintenance indoor plant, they are a far cry from the no-maintenance plant that I was misguided enough to think they were. Spoiler – a no-maintenance plant does not exist. But air plants may be as close as we can get!