If you’re looking for two or three air plants to fill a terrarium and purchase a giant T. Xerographica, you might be in for a surprise when the delivery turns up.
As a general rule of thumb, the air plants we use for ornamental displays, grow between two and seven inches tall. Indoor plants rarely exceed ten inches tall. In the wild, some air plants can achieve impressive heights of around seven feet.
What is an Air Plant?
Air plant is the common name for Tillandsia, the largest genus of the Bromeliad (pineapple) family.
They are unique plants that don’t grow in soil; they absorb all required moisture and nutrients through their leaves. Each one is lined with thousands of microscopic, hair-like cells called trichomes, also used to protect the leaf from direct sunlight.
Air plants are epiphytic – the only use for their small root system is to anchor themselves to an object such as a tree, stone, or log. They are not parasitic and don’t rely on the host for anything other than stability.
There are more than 650 Tillandsia species; it is a generalization to give an overall growth size.
Instead, let’s look at some of the most popular varieties and discuss the achievable size in optimal conditions.
Which Tillandsias are the Smallest?
Air plants begin their life as a seed or an offset from a parent plant. Their overall size is determined by species, growing conditions, and the form and stature of the parent plant.
Some of the smallest Tillandsias remain compact for the duration of their lives. They include:
There are several members of the ionantha family; they are popular because they are low-maintenance and hardy yet beautiful.
Rubra – 1-2”
Most ionantha rubra plants never exceed 2-inches tall, but that doesn’t stop them from standing out in a crowd. They grow in rosette form; their elegant leaves blush gentle hues of pink as it approaches maturity.
Fuego – 1”
The fuego is a fiery red, miniature air plant that rarely surpasses 1-inch tall. It adds a splash of color to terrariums and displays; its bright red leaves hold their color for several weeks.
Mexican – 1-2”
The ionantha Mexican is another hardy air plant from an arid natural habitat. The small plant is somewhat drought tolerant and survives the occasional missed watering session or two. It has spectacular bright orangey-red blooms right before it is ready to pup.
Scaposa – 1-3”
The ionantha scaposa has fuzzy, soft green leaves that grow vertically from a bulb. It tends to lean to one side, giving it a jaunty, fun form that complements other Tillandsia species.
Tillandsia andreana – 2-3”
The first of the smaller air plant species that isn’t an ionantha is the andreana. It is easily recognized by its spiky, spherical shape, almost like a small, green porcupine.
Its native home is a cliff face in Columbia but is equally at home near a windowsill if given plenty of water mistings.
It is one of the few air plants that have red flowers.
Tillandsia bandensis – 1-2”
The bandensis is a miniature air plant that resembles a sea urchin. It is a prolific reproducer; it looks incredible when covered in hanging clusters of pups.
The leaves blush deep purple during the blooming phase.
The plant might not grow tall, but by the time it reaches maturity, it will be approximately 4-inches wide.
Tillandsia butzii – 2-10”
You might be surprised to see a plant capable of growing ten inches tall in the miniature section. It is more to do with its width. For many of its formative years, the butzii is only half an inch wide.
Its long, narrow leaves grow upwards; it is a slender plant even when fully mature.
It suits container growth as it adds height, even in a restricted space.
How Big Do Air Plants grow?
Answering this question is akin to asking how long a piece of string is.
Air plant size varies by species, climate, native habitat, and the care they receive.
We’ve discovered some of the smallest varieties that rarely grow bigger than 3-inches tall.
Most of the common species have a life span of 3-5 years. Due to their drawn-out growth process, Tillandsia rarely exceeds 10″ tall; some varieties remain even more compact.
There are exceptions to the rule. In the wild, Tillandsias can reach mammoth proportions, some bigger than 7-feet tall. There are giant species of air plants that thrive indoors in optimum conditions.
Tillandsia xerographica – 2” – 36” (without inflorescences)
The King/Queen of the air plant. It is an evergreen perennial, formed into a stunning rosette of long silver grey and soft green tendrils.
The leaves are broad at the base before narrowing towards the tip. As they grow, the arch over, creating a beautiful, symmetrical pattern.
Most nurseries sell the plants in individual sizes; small, medium, large, and extra-large. Each gives some indication of the age of the plant.
It takes between 3 and 5 years for a xerographica to reach 4-5″. The slow-growing monster might live upwards of 20-years before rewarding reward you with multiple inflorescences, each one measuring up to 3-feet tall.
Tillandsia capitala giant white – 14” x 14”
The giant version of the capitala air plant is mesmerizing; its long silvery fuzzy leaves curl back on themselves as it grows.
It is a rare find; collectors snap them up, impressed by their long pale yellow flowering spike in the blooming phase.
They thrive indoors with plenty of bright but indirect sunlight. Capitalas enjoy artificial light; fluorescent is their preference. They are slow-growing, giving the owner many years of enjoyment before achieving their full, magnificent size.
T. brachycaulos – 10” x 10”
In its giant form, brachycaulos’ can grow over 10-inches high and wide.
It is a most attractive plant with lots of lush green foliage that cascades down in fountain formation.
They are easy to maintain, providing they are kept out of the direct sun and receive 2×20-minutes deep soaks each week.
After each, they should be left in a well-aerated spot to thoroughly dry.
T. capitata mauve -12” x 16”
The capitata loves bright conditions and lets you know when it has received enough light by blushing. The leaves turn gorgeous hues of reds and purples when the plant is healthy and thriving.
The elongated leaves grow upwards from a bulb. They narrow to a point at the tip before arching outwards.
When flowering is imminent, the capitata’s heart changes an unusual shade of yellow. Fertilize the plants at this point; they appreciate a helping hand as they go into their most energy-sapping phase.
These measurements are only averages; although some plants never achieve such impressive sizes, many exceed them.
If you are desperate for an extra-large Tillandsia, and not prepared to wait for several years, buy one. Be prepared; as the plant’s size increases, so does the price tag.
As a general rule of thumb, the most popular air plant species we use for ornamental purposes are between 3-5-inches tall.
Some are narrow others are as wide as they are high, with chaotic tendrils that grow randomly.
Some are as big as a thumb, while others fill the palm of your hand.
The air plants that grow the biggest of all are in their native habitats. It is possible to cultivate large varieties indoors, in greenhouses, and backyards, providing you choose the giant-growing variety of the species.
With lots of nurture and plenty of patience, you can record the height of your Tillandsias in feet and not in inches.