Types of Air Plants: Species Explained

Air plants differ in several ways; size, shape, color, and form. Although relatively easy to care for, varieties differ depending on their natural habitat.

There are more than 650 types of air plants, most of which fall into one of two categories: Mesic and Xeric. Each variety has several recognizable features and, with a little knowledge, you can choose the types of air plants that best complement your environment and desires.

What are Air Plants?

Tillandsia, commonly known as air plants, are epiphytes; they don’t need soil to grow – they use their roots solely to anchor to a surface. In the wild, this is usually a tree, rock, or cliff face.

They are not parasitic; they take nothing from their host. They use the trichomes (hair-like structures) in their leaves to absorb moisture and nutrients from the air.

Air Plants by Climate

Tillandsia falls into one of three categories; ecologists classify the plants depending on their native climate and the amount of rainfall they need.

Each variety thrives in different temperatures and humidity.

Mesic Climate(from the Greek word for Middle)

Mesic air plants are native to Central Mexico, Costa Rica, and the leafy canopies of Latin American jungles. Here, they experience rainy and wet seasons as storms are commonplace.

mesic air plant
Tillandsia brachycaulos 

The air is moderately humid, which allows the plants sufficient time to dry between soakings.

During dry periods, Tillandsia in these regions absorbs water and nutrients from the heavy mist and mountain fog.

How to Identify Mesic Air Plants

The leaves of Mesic Tillandsia are glossy and waxy; they have fewer noticeable trichomes. They are often a deeper, more vivid shade of green. The leaves are often tightly curled or cupped.

Caring for Mesic Air Plants

Their native habitat provides lots of shade; mimic that in the home – keep mesic plants out of direct sunlight. Bright but filtered light suits them best.

They appreciate frequent misting through the week before a generous soaking at the weekend.

Xeric Climate (from the Greek word for Dry)

Because Xeric climates are extreme, dry, and drought-prone, the air plants that thrive there are the hardiest of all Tillandsia. They survive in desert-like conditions due to their much larger trichomes. They absorb water when it is available and store it in tiny reservoirs.

xeric air plants
tillandsia xerographica

Air plants in the arid conditions of places such as Southern California are lighter hues of green. It helps to reflect the brilliant light from the incessant sun.

Identifying Xeric Air Plants

The high concentration of trichomes gives the leaves a silvery, furry appearance. They are prominent, easily visible to the naked eye.

There are more leaves, and they are typically broader compared with mesic plants. They need a greater surface area to maximize water and light absorption.

Caring for Xeric Plants

Xeric plants are recommended for novice cultivators; they are resilient and require less care.

Misting the plants 2-4 times per week and dunking them in room temperature water at the weekend is sufficient.

Hydric Climate

There is a third category of Tillandsia; those from a hydric climate.

In these regions, it rains heavily and often. The plants get protection from the dense, large-leafed cover of the tree canopies.

Plants from this species tend to grow in or very close to water; it is hard to avoid it.

However, these are by far the least common species of Tillandsia; few retailers deal in them.

Every featured air plant will be either mesic or xeric.

Types of Air Plants

Ionantha

There are multiple varieties of xeric Ionantha plants. They are hardy and resilient, making them the perfect starter plant for those that struggle to keep other plants alive.

As they mature, their leaves grow outward and often turn a darker green.

They are native to Mexico, Central America, and South America and thrive in bright, filtered sunlight.

Tillandsia Ionantha – Sky Plant

Sky plants are one of the most popular and easy to recognize of all air plants. They are of a generous size, growing between 6 and 12″ in optimum conditions.

tillandsia ionantha
tillandsia ionantha

Their long, spidery leaves start silvery green, but as the plant prepares to bloom, they change to vivid pink and red.

The resulting flower is a stunning shade of violet.

Druid Sky Plant

They are very similar form to the Sky Plant but on a much smaller scale. The Druid grows to 4″ tall with slender leaves that turn peachy pink. Unusually for an Ionantha, the blooms are striking white flowers.

Fuego Sky Plant

If you’re looking for a vivid splash of color for a small space, consider the Ionantha Fuego.

They might only reach an inch or two tall, but they fill out with many beautifully blushing leaves.

They are renowned for holding on to their flaming pinks and purples long after other air plants have faded. The Fuego is the ideal Tillandsia for the centerpiece of a display.

Maxima Sky Plant

The Maxima is a head-turning air plant with leaves of subtle green. Over time, they gradually change to soft shades of coral before making way for multiple purple blooms.

They are one of the few plants that handle the strong sun well; they also flourish been artificial, particularly fluorescent, light.

Maxima grow 5-6″ tall and spread about 4″ wide. Their long spiky leaves are a definite conversation starter, especially as they grow well in terrariums.

Tillandsia Caput-Medusae

Tillandsia Caput-Medusae

This air plant is so-called due to its thick, twisting leaves that grow upwards, reminiscent of the serpents in Medusa’s hair.

They are silvery green and extend up to 25cmlong. They bloom from spring to summer; the central pink bract produces 3cm long, vivid purple flowers.

Medusa air plants reproduce well. They have multiple ‘pups’ that can be left to clump at the base of the parent plant. Some owners prefer to remove and propagate them for new, separate plants.

Tillandsia Bulbosa

tillandsia bulbosa

Bulbosa are popular mesic air plants, given the name due to their similarity to regular flower bulbs. Here are two of our favorite varieties

Bulbosa Guatemala

These spindly-looking plants almost look like sea creatures; they would look at home anchored to a seashell or in a beach-themed terrarium.

They have dark green leaves, waxy to the touch. Their deep purple shoots bloom with a striking red flower.

They have fewer trichomes than xeric plants; they require more regular hydration.

They’re native to South American countries, Columbia, Venezuela, and South Brazil. They thrive in bright light conditions, provided it is well-filtered.

Bulbosa Belize

Belize typically grows on trees in mangrove thickets or densely on trees in rain forests.

It is an adaptable plant, striking and exotic in its appearance.

The long leaves twist and curl as they extend until summer, when the upper leaves change to bright red. It isn’t long before distinctive, tubular violet flowers appear.

The Belize air plant has more pups than the Guatemala variety, although they appear more regular.

Tillandsia Abdita Multiflora

Abdita is another very popular mesic plant due to its resilience. It copes well in terrariums and is an integral part of many displays.

It has thick, smooth leaves of deep green, sometimes with a greyish tinge. At certain times of the year, the foliage blushes to a stunning deep-pink hue. Depending on the environment and watering frequency during the bloom season, leaves cycle through an array of pinks and yellows.

Abdita Multiflora air plants originate from the forests of Mexico and grow to 7″ high and 4″ wide.

Tillandsia Xerographica

tillandsia xerographica

Xerographica are known as The King of Air Plants for a reason; they are the only species that reach 3-feet tall.

They are accustomed to the dry, humid, xeric climates of Central, South America, and Mexico, as such, they tolerate certain degrees of neglect better than other varieties.

They thrive indoors, establish a good watering regime and provide as much natural sunlight as possible. Xerographica rewards you with multiple pups and lots of new growth each season.

They are slow-growing plants with trichomes that form in rosettes. Their thick silver-grey, sometimes light green foliage has broad leaves that narrow and curls towards the tip.

Xerographica bloom just once in their lifetime after several years of waiting. The flower is red and chartreuse, and the inflorescence lasts for months.

Tillandsia Harrisii

Tillandsia Harrisii

The Harrisii air plant is a member of the ‘Caulescent’ species’ it grows along a stem above ground.

It has stunning silver-grey leaves packed with trichomes. It enables the plant to withstand low-moderate humidity and enjoy copious amounts of good airflow.

It is a slow-growing tillandsia that reaches around 8” tall. It takes a year or two to bloom; the pinkish-red inflorescence produces the most beautiful, vivid purple flowers.

Native to Guatemala with a xeric climate, the Harrisii withstands full sun but prefers bright, indirect light.

Give the plant a deep soak once a week and enjoy it for many years ahead.

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.