Air plants have grown in popularity in recent years, with many people using them as integral interior design. It may not be the rooms in the house that need the natural touch, but the yard that can take a little brightening up.
You might wonder if air plants can live outside, and if so, how best to display them.
It is safe to display your air plants outside, all-year-around as long as you protect them from frost. There is a list of other criteria to consider, including environmental conditions and climate. With little maintenance and a lot of love, air plants can live in harmony in a garden, decorating some unusual spots.
What are Air Plants
Air plant is the common name for Tillandsia, the largest genus of the Bromeliad (pineapple) family. There are more than 650-species; all are unique as they don’t need soil to grow.
They absorb water and nutrients from the surrounding atmosphere through trichomes in their leaves.
Tillandsias’ native habitat includes humid desert, forest, and mountain regions of Mexico, Southern and Central America, and much of Meso-America, the Caribbean, and the West Indies.
Their small root system has one job; to anchor to a substrate, such as a tree, rock, plant, or cliff face. They are not parasitic as they don’t drain anything from the host surface; they rely on it for stability.
Can Air Plants Live Outside?
You might presume that it is safe to keep air plants outside; after all, they originally grew in the wild.
While true, the native conditions and climate for successful air plant growth are probably very different from those in your backyard.
However, certain factors considered, it is possible to grow air plants outdoors across much of the United States and beyond.
Air plants thrive best in temperatures in the 70s. Due to their hardiness and resilience, they tolerate anything from 60 through 90°F – providing sufficient shade, water, and air circulation are available.
Remember to check the expected overnight drop in temperature; take plants indoors should the temperature drop below 50°F as they won’t survive.
Pay heed to differing temperatures as the seasons change; no air plant species tolerate excessive heat/cold/rain. Take them indoors until circumstances improve.
Air plants that live outside or indoors need lots of bright light; all species, especially those native to mesic climates, thrive in indirect or filtered sunlight.
Tillandsias native to xeric climates tolerate some direct sunlight but in small amounts. Air plants air easily burnt, something from which they can’t always recover.
- Mesic climates include rainforests, where the atmosphere is warm and humid. Waxy, green-leaved plants from this environment receive dappled sunlight, diffused by the large tree canopies. Replicate this in your yard for flourishing results. During November through March, when conditions are typically more humid, mesic air plants handle more direct sunlight as they don’t dry out and burn as quickly.
- Xeric climates include dry and hot deserts. The fuzzy, gray-ish leaves of the air plant adapt well and tolerate direct sunlight for short periods. For best results, leave xeric plants in the early morning or evening sun. April through October is the best time when conditions are milder.
All air plant species need at least 4-hours of indirect light and some shady periods every day.
Watering and Drainage
Air plants need lots of water to thrive. In humid conditions, there is often sufficient moisture in the air to meet their needs. In cooler lower humidity conditions, they rely on humans for supplementary irrigation.
How often you water plants depends on the time of year and your local climate.
In Florida, where there is plenty of humidity; mist outdoor air plants once or twice a week. Adjust this accordingly as the temperatures rise or fall.
During the rainy season, air plants require less frequent watering. Sheltered plants still need to be misted, but less frequently. High winds and breeze cause air plants to dehydrate faster.
Excess water is the enemy of Tillandsias. Never allow rain to pool at the base of the plant; it will get dry rot and die. Look out for dark spots at the heart of the plant or the lower leaves breaking loose.
Don’t water air plants in afternoon heat; it could cause sunburn, which is often fatal. Early morning is best; the plants get a thorough drink, and the increasing warmth evaporates any excess water. Some gardeners prefer to water in the evening, corresponding with jungle rainfall.
Check for leaves curling more than usual or their color fading to brown. They are signs of dehydration; remove the plant and soak to revive it.
Ideas for Air Plants that Live Outside
There are many places to display air plants outdoors. Ensure they remain accessible enough to mist; to remove for deep watering and drying purposes, or to take indoors when the temperatures drop.
Covered decks and patios are ideal spots for air plants. Not only do they receive plenty of indirect sunlight throughout the day, but they also have good airflow. As air plants absorb moisture and nutrition from the atmosphere, plenty of air circulation is vital to their survival.
The boughs and nooks of trees are the perfect places for outdoor air plants. The sun’s rays diffused through the leaves give them prime growing conditions.
The branches are suited to suspend pots and containers; this showcases a Tillandsia collection, especially those with clumps of pups.
Get inventive; use old bird cages, shells, stones, and pieces of driftwood to make outdoor displays. China teacups were made for Tillandsias, as long as you remember to empty excess water.
Outside tables on screened porches are prime spots for air plants. Again, the lighting and air conditions in most environments couldn’t be any better.
The Best Air Plants for Outside
Tillandsias are highly resistant to bugs and suit outdoor life, with no need for pesticides.
You also save money on fertilizer; air plants gain sufficient nutrition from the free-flowing air, providing they’re not in an enclosed space.
Climate permitting; bear in mind what is cold to a Floridian might be positively balmy to the inhabitants of Maine; all air plants can live outside.
The King of the air plants as it grows to impressive heights. It has undulating, ribbon-like leaves that curl into rosette form. It has an abundance of trichomes, creating a fuzzy appearance suited to xeric climates.
It is ideal for those with hectic schedules that might not water as frequently as they should. It is drought tolerant and handles short periods of direct sun.
T. Caput Medusae
So-named due to the similarity of the chaotic, twisting leaves to the snakes of Medusa’s head. The species remains narrow but grows to around 10” tall, with striking deep red inflorescences.
As the plant grows in a bulb form, try hanging it upside down outdoors to prevent pooling issues where water pools in the base.
Replicate the effect of Spanish Moss in the Everglades by affixing several of the small T. usneoides to trees in your yard.
Collectively, they create curtains of green, although individually, they are relatively small plants.
They need tropical or subtropical climates to thrive and create a stunning outdoor centerpiece.
Variants of the ionantha species including, Red, Fuego, and Rubra, are ideal for outside displays. They are small, rarely surpassing 5-inches, but bloom delightful hues of pink and red. They add glorious hints of color in otherwise dull areas.
If you want to create a focal point or have an empty canvas to fill, this is the air plant for you. The Utriculata is a giant, spreading species native to Florida and Georgia.
It grows relatively quickly, over time becoming too heavy for the branch on which it’s anchored!
Some Utriculata plants reach heights above 6-feet when their long, spiky inflorescence is about to flower.
They are one of the very few Tillandsias that don’t offset or pup. They propagate only by seed and, because of this, are prone to attacks from the Bromeliad Weevil.
Air plants are unique and adaptable; not only do they thrive indoors, but they also flourish outside. Invest in Tillandsias whose native environment is as similar to yours as possible.
Most species benefit from increased light, humidity, and rainfall.
Plan for drastic temperature changes and ensure they have plenty of shade in your chosen spot. Very soon, your backyard could be your own tropical oasis.