Updated: Jul 5, 2021
Air plants, scientifically known as Tillandsia, are a genus of over 650 species made up of numerous ferns, evergreens, bromeliads, and orchids growing on tree trunks in tropical areas. Most are epiphytes, which translates as 'on a plant', and means just that, they live on other plants or hosts but they are not parasitic, rather just like to hang on. Some can even live on rocks, roofs, and telephone lines, and are called lithophytic. They are easy to care for and can add interesting, living elements to indoor and outdoor spaces in climates like Southern California's.
They are called air plants because their roots are exposed to air and there is no soil covering them. Their small roots are used to help them hold on like feet and do not absorb nutrients like regular roots. Instead air plants use trichomes, sponge like cells on their leaves that can rapidly absorb water and nutrients.
They are very abundant in the Amazon rainforest and are found in their native habitat across the Southern US, Mexico, Central and South America. Since they are easy to care for, people are now growing them all over the world.
A Diverse Genus
There are a multitude of traits making this a diverse genus. Air plants are usually either green or gray in color. The green species come from cool and low humidity climates and prefer the lower, shadier levels of the forest. The leaves are usually softer and do not like direct sun. The gray species like hotter, drier climates and can be found in the upper forests and these are the varieties that can even grow on rocks. Their leaves are usually sturdier and can take direct sun.
One of the flowering species come from the bromeliad family and offer beautiful shades of yellow orange, red, all the way to pink and purple, and multi-colored blooms which are bright to attract pollinators, essential for their survival. Common pollinators are hummingbirds, moths, and bats. The single bloom is a stalk of a paddle, funnel, or spiky shaped flower and leaves that does a great job collecting and holding water.
Air Plant Care
Air plants are so easy, but they do need a little care. Green plants need more watering and less sun than the gray varieties. Even though many say to just mist them with water once or twice a week, they also need a good soak upside down in water for at least 30 minutes, or even overnight, every three to four weeks to really thrive. If the leaves start to curl it's a sign that it needs more water. You can trim the roots back or off, they do not need them.
Temp wise they are easy too, and can be happy in temperatures ranging from 50 to 90 degrees fahrenheit! Good air circulation is important so avoid terrariums with small openings. Plants that are flowering are showing that they are happy and healthy.
Depending on the variety, many air plants can create a pup, a smaller version of itself, off to one side, which can be removed once it is about half the size of the mother plant and it will propagate into an adult.
Air plants can be put just about anywhere making them fun to decorate with, unlike plants needing a pot and dirt. Be creative and replanting is easy! Just move it!