Air plants have stepped into the houseplant spotlight for both their ease of care and the many creative ways they can be displayed. Head to your favorite local nursery and you’re sure to find sea shells, glass globes, and wooden frames filled with air plants on display. These free-living plants are fairly unique in the plant world, but just because they don’t need to be planted in a pot of soil, doesn’t mean they don’t have care requirements. Though it isn’t difficult, air plant care is surprisingly specific.
What are air plants?
Before we discuss air plant care, let’s take a quick look at what air plants actually are. When you know a little more about how and where these plants naturally grow, the following air plant care tips make a lot more sense.
Air plants are members of the bromeliad family. They’re a large group of plants in the genus Tillandsia, of which there are hundreds of different species. Air plants are epiphytes that use their small roots to attach themselves to the branches of trees and shrubs, rather than growing in the ground. Because they don’t rob nutrients from their host plant, air plants are not considered parasites. Instead, they just use their host as an anchor and a place to live.
Air plants absorb moisture and nutrients through their leaves, instead of through their roots. Any roots present on members of the Tillandsia genus are used for securing the plant to the tree on which it lives. Some varieties of air plants are large with broad, strap-like leaves, while others are tiny with thread-like leaves.
Native to the southern U.S., Central and South America, and Mexico, air plants live in a wide range of climates. But, no species survive winters where temperatures dip much below 40 degrees F. Since air plants absorb moisture through their leaves, they prefer warm, humid conditions. Most homes are not humid enough for air plants, especially in the winter months. So, caring for air plants means keeping the plants regularly watered.
How to water air plants
The first step of proper air plant care is to ensure the leaves receive the right amount of moisture. Many people think that air plants can live on air alone, hence their common name. But that’s definitely not the case. Instead, the name air plant comes from the fact that the plants don’t require soil to live, instead deriving their moisture and nutrition from the air.
Since your home probably isn’t a humid forest where air plant watering occurs via the rain and the relative humidity, you’ll have to water your air plants in one of two ways.
- Watering air plants via misting: For this method, use a spray bottle or plant mister to spritz air plants with water every day or two. After spraying the entire plant, place the damp air plant on a towel to dry for a few hours before putting it back in its decorative container or arrangement.
- How to water air plants in a bowl or sink of water: This is the best method of watering air plants as it really allows the water to soak into the plants. To water air plants this way, fill a bowl or sink with water and float the air plants in the water for 20 minutes to an hour every week. Then, take the plants out of the water, tip them upside down so any excess water can drain away where it won’t cause rot, and then place them on a towel to dry before putting them back on display.
Air plant care: The best water to use for watering
There are several different kinds of water you can use to water air plants, regardless of whether you’re misting them or soaking them. Here are some tips for the type of water to use when watering air plants.
- Do not use softened water as the salt present in it can build up in the plant leaves.
- Do not use distilled water.
- If using tap water, allow it to sit at room temperature for 24 hours for the chlorine to dissipate.
- Spring water or rain water is the best choice.
- You can also use aquarium or pond water to water air plants as it contains several dissolved nutrients, but do not apply any other fertilizers if you water with aquarium or pond water.
How often to water air plants depends on how dry your house is. It also depends on the conditions of the room your air plants are kept in. Bathrooms and kitchen make great air plant homes due to their high moisture levels after showers, dish washing, and other humidity-generating activities. Rooms where fans are left constantly running are poor choices for air plants. The moving air causes the plant to dry out more quickly.
Signs that your air plant needs to be watered more frequently include curling or rolling leaves, leaves that fold together, or browning of the outermost leaves. Typically the green-leaved air plant varieties need to be watered more frequently than the gray-leaved ones.
If you keep your air plant inside a vessel, such as a terrarium or glass globe, take it out prior to watering. Then allow the air plant to fully dry before returning it to its decorative setting.
How much light do air plants need?
The next step in air plant care is to consider how much light to give your plant. For air plants, bright but filtered light is best. A west, east, or south-facing window will do. If you don’t think your air plant is getting enough light, supplemental lighting via a fluorescent light or a table-top grow light helps.
Tillandsias enjoy spending the summer outdoors, but be sure to put them in a location with filtered sunlight. Direct sun during the hot summer months can “fry” them. And be sure to move the plants back indoors before fall’s first frost.
Air plant care tips for fertilization
Fertilizing air plants isn’t a difficult task, nor is it an essential one. Though a monthly or quarterly application of fertilizer helps air plants thrive, if you skip this step, it’s not the end of the world, especially if you water air plants with rain water or water from an aquarium or pond.
To fertilize air plants, use an air plant-specific fertilizer or a bromeliad fertilizer a few times a year. Another option is to use a regular, water soluble houseplant fertilizer at 1/4 of the recommended strength.
Add the diluted fertilizer to your irrigation water, and the plants are fed and watered at the same time. Do this regardless of whether you water via misting or by soaking the plants in water.
More air plant care tips
Other than choosing the correct location, and properly watering and fertilizing air plants, there are only a few other air plant care tips to consider.
- If any leaves at the base of the plant die, simply pull them off with your fingers or cut them off with a sharp pair of plant grooming shears.
- If any leaves turn brown at the tips, cut the brown, dead growth off with the grooming shears. Do it at an angle, so the trimmed leaf blends in with the healthy ones.
- Keep air plants away from both cold and hot drafts that dry them out.
- The ideal temperature for air plants is between 50 and 90 degrees F.
Do air plants bloom?
Lucky houseplant lovers who learn how to care for air plants properly are often gifted with blooms from their air plants. Most species of Tillandsia bloom only once in their life. Blooms spikes can be pink, purple, white, orange, red, or yellow, and typically occur in late winter or spring.
Sometime around the time of bloom, air plants also produce offsets, or young daughter plants called pups. Separate these offsets from the mother plant by twisting or cutting them off. Move the young offset to a new location when it’s about half the size of the mother plant.
As you now see, just because air plants are considered low maintenance doesn’t mean you can completely ignore them. Proper air plant care is essential to enjoying these unique little plants for many years to come.
For more on growing great houseplants check out the following posts:
Types of houseplant bugs: Who they are and what to do about them
Instructions for repotting an orchid
Easy projects for mini holiday houseplants
Houseplant fertilization tips and schedule
Make your own potting soil for houseplants
Do you grow air plants? Tell us about your experiences in the comment section below.