Air Plants for Beginners: Species, Care Requirements, and More

Not everyone is blessed with a green thumb, but that shouldn’t mean we can’t bring nature indoors to brighten up our homes. Air plants are the perfect substitute for traditional potted plants. They are quirky, colorful, and resilient; best of all, most species are low-maintenance.

There are more than 650 species of air plants, many of which are ideal for beginners.

What are Air Plants

Air Plants are part of the Bromeliad (pineapple) family. They are the largest genus, with the given name Tillandsia.

what are air plants

They are epiphytes; they don’t need soil to grow. They absorb necessary moisture and nutrients through minute, hair-like cells in their leaves called trichomes.

In the wild, air plants use their small root system to anchor themselves to a substrate, often a tree, rock, cliff face, or cacti.

They are not parasitic; Tillandsias don’t rely on the host for anything other than shelter.

Things to Consider Before Choosing an Air Plant

Air plants have a set of requirements that enable them to flourish indoors. They need plenty of light, warmth, and good air circulation. Tillandsias also need plenty of moisture to replicate their native humid conditions.

Before selecting the most suitable Tillandsia, take a look through these pointers:

Plant Positioning

  • Tillandsia like lots of light, but most prefer indirect, filtered light. Placing your air plants on a window sill might scorch the leaves; 3-4ft. from a window allows plenty of indirect light to flood in.
  • Keep the room above 40°F with as little temperature fluctuation as possible.
  • Certain species grow big; others thrive when suspended. Consider this before choosing their ideal spot.
  • Keep air plants away from vents, air-con outlets, and heaters to prolong their life.

Space Requirements

  • Air plants might be small, but they grow over time. Ensure their container allows for this.
  • Terrariums might look pretty, but more than 2 or 3 Air plants might cramp each other as they grow. They will fight for available air if there isn’t sufficient room.
  • You will need space to access the plants regularly for misting and soaking sessions.

Patience

  • Most Tillandsia species are slow-growing; be patient while waiting for them to bloom.
  • Air plants flower once in their lifetime; it is worth the wait.
  • Blooming signifies the plant reaching full maturity. Small off-sets called pups are the adult reproducing.
  • The parent plant is approaching the end of its life but leaves new life behind.

Care

  • Most air plant species need a regular watering regime, misting several times a week and deep watering less frequently.
  • Invest in a Bromeliad fertilizer to give the plants a monthly feed.
  • Always dry air plants thoroughly; pooling water causes root rot, a fate from which many don’t recover.

The Best Air Plants for Beginners

It is relatively easy to care for air plants. They need regular irrigation but are forgiving should you miss one or two appointments.

The maintenance of air plants depends on their native habitat, whether they live in arid desert conditions or the hot and humid rainforest.

Some of the more popular and easily maintained Tillandsia include:

Tillandsia Ionantha

Tillandsia Ionantha Rubra
Tillandsia Ionantha Rubra

There are multiple ionantha varieties, most of which are small-medium size and require minimal care.

They suit terrarium environments where they receive copious amounts of indirect sunlight.

The smallest varieties should be misted twice weekly, twice as often in hot summers. While some people feel that they are too delicate to soak, we believe that providing it isn’t in flower, a 20-minute dunk every 2-weeks is beneficial to the plant.

Tillandsia Fuego

This fun and vibrant plant grows to 3-inches tall and, if given lots of bright sunlight, the foliage blushes vivid pink and red hues. They are prolific reproducers, growing multiple cascading clumps.

T. Rubra

The silver-green leaves of the rubra grow in a rosette formation, making it a particularly eye-catching air plant.

Like the fuego, the rubra also blushes deep reds and pinks in plentiful filtered light – colors that remain long after the bloom fades.

It grows long white bracts from its core, each bearing multiple deep-violet, tubular flowers with bright yellow stamens.

T. Scaposa

Coming from the forests of Guatemala, the scaposa typically requires less light but more water than other air ionantha varieties.

It is a small plant that suits terrariums or displays. The leaves are thick and stiff, growing upwards before slowly opening out. As they mature, each leaf tip blushes a subtle pink shade.

T. Vanhyngii

One of the rarer ionantha species, the vanhyngii is much sought after. Its leaves are thicker, similar to those of a succulent plant. As they grow, they form fascinating, irregular star shapes.

This plant looks like a scaled-down pineapple head. It adds much interest to many air plant displays, especially as it is a prolific propagator.

Other Popular Air Plant Varieties

Tillandsia Caput-medusae

Tillandsia Caput-Medusae

One look at this air plant explains how it got its name; the leaves twist and curl just as the snakes from Medusa’s head.

It is a bulbous plant that blushes shades of purple in good lighting conditions. It is drought-tolerant so requires less frequent watering than other Tillandsia species.

It thrives in copious amounts of sunlight and enjoys an hour or two outdoors in the morning or evening sun. Filtered light is sufficient for the rest of the day.

T. Tectorum

Tillandsia Tectorum

The tectorum leaves have a soft and fuzzy appearance created by the thousands of trichomes it needs to absorb enough water.

It is similar to a spider plant; the leaves are elongated and spiky, curling downwards towards the tips.

It needs lots of bright filtered light but can withstand and enjoy direct winter sun for a few hours daily.

It is drought tolerant but appreciates regular misting, occasional deep water soaking, and monthly feeds.

The tectorum is a slow-growing Tillandsia, but patience is rewarded with bright pink flowers on velvety purple bracts.

T. Aeranthos

tillandsia aeranthos

The aeranthos is one of the hardiest of all Tillandsia, and therefore popular amongst novice and experienced air plant growers.

It enjoys lots of filtered bright light during the summer and tolerates the winter sun well. It survives happily outdoors at temperatures as low as 23°F just remember to bring it indoors at the first sign of rain.

Aeranthos don’t need huge amounts of water; misting should be sufficient in winter. During summer, give them a 20-minute soak every 3-4 weeks, increase the frequency in very hot weather.

Always dry them thoroughly before returning to their display.

The plant is medium-sized and enjoys terrarium life. Its stiff leaves are sturdy enough to withstand lots of handling.

The chaotic leaves blush purple hues at the onset of blooming season before revealing stunning bright pink flowers.

T. Butzii

The butzii plant looks different from many other Tillandsias; its leaves are long, narrow, and twisted. It is an amazing sight when suspended to grow downwards; macramé hangers are ideal.

It is adaptable and tolerates cool or humid conditions; it will also survive in less light conditions than other varieties.

It is a thirsty plant; it enjoys lots of heavy misting or dunking sessions. Although you can soak butzii air plants, it is not advisable as the water settles and stagnates in their bulbous base.

They are particularly eye-catching during the bloom phase. The bright red bracts and purple petals on tubular flowers are stunning.

They are prolific reproducers; left in situ, the multiple pups form several clumps.

T. Harrisii

Tillandsia Harrisii

Harrisii air plants come from hotter climates and have an inbuilt tolerance to less frequent watering.

It makes them the perfect starter plant; it won’t die while waiting for you to establish a watering routine.

The plants need an hour-long soak every week or two; given regular mistings in between, they will thrive until blooming season.

The wide leaves grow upwards before arching over, forming a rosette. Their fuzzy, silver-green appearance is due to the thousands of trichomes covering the leaves. They absorb vital nutrients and water from the atmosphere water, and they also reflect harsh sunlight.

Harrisii plants happily enjoy direct sunlight for a few hours daily, as long as the rest of the time is in indirect light.

They flourish beneath artificial light, particularly fluorescent. The air plants are ideally suited to rooms with little natural light.

Final Thoughts

If choosing the best air plants for beginners is still too difficult, several online retailers stock starter packs containing everything needed to begin a collection.

Opt for unique substrates to show off your Tillandsias at their best. Glass stones, driftwood, slate, corks, or seashells make beautiful focal pieces and conversation starters.

Anthony Marsh
Anthony Marsh is a writer with deep roots in the soil of western New Hampshire. His first experiences with gardening were at the age of 10 where his parents allowed him to plant and cultivate his first vegetable garden. Twenty years later he’s continued with his passion for gardening and actively rescues abandoned plant life.