All About Air Plants

Air Plants are the perfect solution for those of you who identify as self-professed houseplant killers. Not only are they resistant to pests and diseases, but they require no soil and are relatively small, making them easy to place in apartments, offices or condominiums. They also come in a range of foliage colours and forms, so there is bound to be one that suits your décor or aesthetic. With that in mind, here is everything you need to know about caring for them.

Air Plant mounted on wooden stand
Air Plant mounted on wooden stand

Air Plants are…known botanically as Tillandsia, a diverse group of 650 evergreen species native from the south-eastern US down to Argentina. They are members of the Bromeliad family (Bromeliaceae) and most are epiphytes, meaning that they attach themselves to trees and draw their nutrients from air and rainwater.

Light Requirements – All Air Plants require bright, indirect light but will tolerate stronger light levels with higher humidity. Some species, such as silver-leaved Tillandsia harrisii can endure a few hours of direct sun. They can also be grown under artificial light provided they are no further than 3’ from the source and the grow lights are full-spectrum, but make sure they get at least 12 hours a day.

Tillandsia harrisii.
Tillandsia harrisii.

Ideal Temperature – Tillandsia tolerate a wide range of temperatures, from 50-90F, with overnight temperatures dropping no more than 10F than daytime.

Soak your air plants once a month

Watering – This is the important part because you don’t actually water your Air Plants, since there is no soil…you mist. The type of water you use is equally critical; as softened (too many salts) and distilled or filtered water (lacking both minerals and nutrients) are not ideal. Instead, use tap water that has sat overnight (to remove chlorine) or rain water. Mist in the morning, twice a week in the summer (when it’s drier) and once a week in winter; you can add an extra misting if your home is arid from forced air heating or a fireplace. Unmounted specimens should also be soaked by submerging in tepid water once a month for 30 minutes to one hour, after which you gently shake off the excess water and lay it upside down on a towel to dry. It should be fully dry in three hours, after which you can return it to its terrarium or mount. Dried leaf tips (which may also indicate too much sunlight) and leaves that are softer or lighter in colour may also indicate a lack of water.

Mist your Air Plants regularly

Life Cycle – Tillandsia take an average of two years (longer for some species) to come into bloom, after which the parent plant declines. While in bloom, you will want to be careful not to get the flower stalk wet when soaking, as this will cause it to rot prematurely. Even though the parent plant eventually dies, it readily produces between 2-8 pups or offsets as replacements.

Pruning – Pruning is fairly minimal as lower leaves that naturally slough off can generally be removed with a gentle tug, while dried or damaged tips can be cut at an angle using fine scissors. Pups can be removed from the parent plant once they are 1/3 its size using an exacto knife to separate it right at the base.

Fertilizing – Fertilize once a month with a water-soluble orchid fertilizer at ¼ strength – this will encourage blooming and pup production.

Frame mounted Air Plants.
Frame mounted Air Plants.

Mounting – You can permanently mount your Air Plants on wood placards, bark or just about anything using non-copper wire (the copper is poisonous), some adhesives like Liquid Nails or even hot glue gun, but let the latter cool for 5 seconds before placing the Tillandsia. Permanently mounted specimens may have to be misted more often, as they cannot be soaked. Other options include small glass terrariums that often hang and with these, you have to be careful not to place them by a window, as the glass intensifies the sun’s rays. Hangable wire ornaments are also available and these can be quite handy as the Air Plant just sits in a wire cradle and can be removed for soaking.

Air Plant in hanging glass terrarium ball, Plant mounted on wood slice, Wire ornament Air Plant hanger.

Plant Form – The plant form is as diverse as the number of species with the curly-leaved Tillandsia butzii as well as the straight, wispy blades of T. juncifolia. Clusters of pups can be mounted on a short stem to make it look like a small standard tree, such as is commonly done with the red-toned Tillandsia ionantha ‘Fuego’. And you can even have a taste of the tropics right in your home with an unruly tangle of Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) dangling in your living room or office, which reminds me of the dazzling wild displays I saw down in Guatemala.

Tillandsia ionantha 'Fuego' ball mounted as standard tree, Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) in Tikal, Guatemala, Tillandsia butzii, Tillandsia juncifolia,

Pests & Diseases – As I mentioned earlier, these are few and far between, as most problems are cultural and are caused by underwatering, a lack of light or over-fertilization. Mealybugs are occasionally seen and these can be controlled by dabbing with a cotton swab dipped in isopropyl alcohol and keeping in quarantine until you are sure the pests are eradicated. Some people mistake the fuzzy leaf hairs or trichomes for fungus, but these actually help the plant to absorb moisture from the air.

Well, as you can see, it seems that even brown thumbs can enjoy the latest trend of interior greening with Air Plants, so I hope you take the time to view our selection in person at Amsterdam Garden Centre.

All Images Copyright 2021 MK Lascelle