By Master Gardener Sandy Vanno
Tillandsia, commonly known as air plants, are the houseplants of the moment in the gardening scene! If you have visited a garden center in the last few years, you have undoubtedly come across an interesting-looking display of air plants! Care is not difficult if you understand how they grow in their natural environment.
In nature, Tillandsia species are epiphytes, meaning they attach to other plants or rocky substrates as a means of support. They are unique because they get all their water and nutrients from the air through special scale-like structures on their leaves, which trap moisture and dust, providing the plant with water and nutrients. Their roots are used solely for attachment – rather than absorbing nutrients or water via roots.
Air plants are divided into two categories: mesic and xeric. Mesic air plants hail from moderately humid regions such as South American rainforests. They thrive in a canopy of trees and prefer more filtered light than their xeric counterparts. The leaves of mesic types are a deeper green, smooth, and slightly cupped. Xeric air plants are from desert-like climates are often rock dwellers. Their leaves have large numbers of trichrome (small, hair-like growths), resulting in a gray or fuzzy appearance. Often their leaves are wider to allow a larger surface area to absorb water and light. Most houseplant owners will probably find it easiest to care for the silvery, fuzzy air plants because these are most forgiving when it comes to watering.
Tillandsias are forgiving indoor plants if given adequate amounts of light and water. They do best with bright, indirect light, preferably in an east or west-facing window. South-facing windows are an excellent location in the fall, winter and spring, but they may get too hot in the summer months. It is unlikely that air plants will do well in windows with a northern exposure or interior of rooms without a light source. Warm temperatures are also important for keeping air plants healthy. Like most houseplants, air plants prefer the indoor temperature to fall between 65-85°F in the daytime and between 50-65°F at night time. At lower temperatures, growth tends to be poor, and plants are more prone to rot.
Misting, rinsing or soaking are three methods of watering Tillandsias. Misting air plants to the point of run-off may have to be done every other day with low household humidity. However, rinsing seems to be the simplest watering technique. Twice a week, gather the air plants, hold them under the faucet, rinsing them thoroughly with tepid water. Lay them face down on a paper towel for a few seconds to drain off excess water. Other sources report great success by submerging air plants weekly for 20 minutes to an hour, then draining them well. Be aware that air plants can be sensitive to chlorine and fluorine. Slightly rolled or curled leaves indicate it is time to water, and brown leaf tips are a sign that plants aren't getting enough water.
Good air circulation is important to air plants. While they look great enclosed in glass, be sure to allow plants to dry at least 4 hours after watering before placing them back in a terrarium.
Air plants bloom but once in their lifetime. The flowers come in many shapes and in a range of colors, from coral to pinks and purples. After they flower, they produce “pups” or small offsets – new plants emerging from the base of the mother plant. Once pups are one-third the size of the mother plant, they can be gently separated from the main plant and grown on their own or left in place, allowing the plant to form a clump.
Tillandsias should also be fertilized about once a month or so. The easiest way to do this is to soak them in a diluted fertilizer solution for a few minutes. Any water-soluble houseplant fertilizer will do, though it is possible to buy specific fertilizers formulated for bromeliads and air plants.
The fact that air plants thrive without soil offers lots of options for their use in decorating. Displaying them is really where most of the fun comes in. One popular option is to place them inside glass globes. Other possibilities include attaching them to bark or cork with wire or glue or displaying them in dishes of decorative pebbles. Air plants can be grown on essentially any surface that dries quickly and makes it easy to water. You are only limited by your own creativity!
Penn State Extension
Last updated November 9, 2021