Are Air Plants Succulents? Here’s Why NOT

Air plants and succulents are unique, often small, ornamental plants. They have many similar features, including size and coloring. Both have gained popularity in recent years as integral pieces of interior design.

Air plants and succulents are not the same things, and it is often possible to tell the difference by appearance alone. Succulents have thick, fleshy leaves that often feel waxy to the touch. Air plants’ leaves are typically slender, long, and tendril-like. Besides appearance, they differ by their native habitats (mostly) favored growing medium and the amount of water necessary for survival.

What are Air Plants?

Air plants belong to the Tillandsia genus, the largest of the Bromeliad (pineapple) family. It includes more than 650 species, most of which are native to Mexico, Southern and Central America, the West Indies, and many regions of Meso-America.

Air plants are epiphytic; they don’t grow in soil.

what are air plants

Their leaves are covered in thousands of tiny hair-like structures called trichomes, through which they absorb all necessary water and nutrients.

Tillandsias root system isn’t entirely useless; they use it to anchor themselves to substrates such as trees, cliff faces, rocks, and fences. They are not parasites; they use the host for stability and nothing else.

What are Succulents

The Latin word for juice is succus; it translates as juice or sap and demonstrates why succulents are so-called. Their leaves are plump, swollen, and juicy due to their excellent water retaining abilities.

They are native globally, everywhere except for Antarctica – however, they prefer regions with arid climates, little rain, and low humidity.

what are succulents

Succulents are hard to classify; they are diverse and present in more than 25-different plant families. However, not all of the other plants within these families are succulents.

Succulents almost always need soil to grow; they use their root system to absorb moisture and nutrients.

There is an exception to the rule; a small minority of succulents are epiphytic like the air plant. We’ll discuss those in more detail.

Air Plants vs Succulents

Here are some of the many contributing factors that prove air plants are not succulents:

Epiphytes

Epiphytic plants don’t need soil; they grow on other objects (not always live ones) and absorb moisture, nutrients, and light through trichomes on their leaves.

All air plants are epiphytes; they won’t grow in soil; the high nitrogen levels would kill the plant quickly.

Succulents need soil to grow; their roots absorb whatever moisture they can find and store it within their leaves and stem.

The Christmas Cactus is one exception. It is found anchored to trees in the highest regions of Brazilian rain forests. Its roots burrow into the tree until it reaches moisture.

Other succulents that operate this way are Hylocereus, Disocactus, and Rhipsallis. It is only possible if there is leaf and plant debris close or they lack essential nutrients.

Appearance

How an air plant looks depends on its native climate.

Xeric climates are dry, arid, and drought-prone. Tillandsia from desert-type environments tends to have more leaves with more trichomes to absorb any available moisture. The cells resemble microscopic hairs and give the plants a fuzzy appearance and a silvery-gray color.

tillandsia xerographica
T. Xerographica

Mesic climates are wetter for most of the year. A good example is Latin American jungles, where Tillandsias grow in the humidity created by the leaf canopies.

This type of air plant has richer, green leaves with fewer trichomes. They are glossy and feel more resilient to the touch.

Most air plants have long, tendril-like leaves that curl and twist as they grow.

Succulents are easily recognizable by their swollen, fleshy leaves. These ornamental plants come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, colors, and textures.

Some have spoon-shaped leaves, while others, such as the Jade plant, are oval.

They come in shades of pinks, reds, yellows, and white – not forgetting every hue of green known to man.

The cactus is easily identifiable by its rigid green body and sharp with needles. Every cactus is a succulent; not every succulent is a cactus.

Flowering

All air plants are monocarpicthey bloom just once in their lifetime. Flowering signifies the plant has reached maturity and is ready to reproduce.

It is done in one of two ways; by pollination of the flowers, or asexually, growing small offsets called pups.

Tillandsias slowly die once they have achieved their procreation mission.

air plant bloom

Some succulents are monocarpic – they too flower, reproduce and die. However, many more species never bloom, bloom annually, or more frequently.

Typically, succulents are at least 4-years old before they flower.

There is no set pattern as to what time of year it happens; however, each species has a preference, depending on the climate and environment.

Care and Maintenance

Air plants trade on their ‘low-maintenance’ name, but they do have some care needs. Our homes aren’t as humid or wet as their native climates (apart from bathrooms); they rely on us for regular irrigation. It amounts to misting 2-3 times a week and regular monthly or bi-monthly deep soaking sessions.

air plant fertilizer

Air plants need a boost with a Bromeliad fertilizer about once a month, except for during winter.

Succulents thrive on neglect, making them the ideal plant for novice gardeners or those not blessed with a green thumb.

They need little water; their compact shape helps them retain any moisture in the leaves, roots, and stems. They only need a drink when their soil feels very dry to the touch.

They don’t need regular fertilization; once a month during spring and summer is sufficient. Use specialist cacti or succulent formulation.

Lighting Requirements

do air plants need light

Air plants need lots of bright light to thrive. They prefer indirect, filtered sunlight, although, some species tolerate an hour or so of morning or afternoon sun each day.

Some xeric air plants withstand some direct sun, providing they also get lots of shade.

Indoor plants respond well to artificial lighting, with many species showing a preference for fluorescent lighting.

Succulents love heat and bright light. Their native habitat is often unforgiving, and the plants thrive, even in the direct afternoon sun.

Indoors, succulents aren’t as needy as Tillandsias. Providing they spend lots of their time on a bright windowsill, they are happy.

Final Thoughts

Air plants are not succulents; they don’t need soil to grow and need plenty of water to survive.

Succulents don’t need much water as they can store it for long periods; they also prefer low humidity. It is the opposite of air plants that flourish in moderate and high humidity conditions and enjoy regular watering sessions.

Both species are ideal for novice gardeners, but succulents require less care, as they virtually thrive on neglect.

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.