What are Air Plants? Tillandsias Plant Species Explained

Air plant is the commonly used name for Tillandsias, which are part of the Bromeliad family. They are epiphytes – they require no soil to grow – the only purpose of any root is to anchor them to a host object; In the wild, this is often a tree, rock, or fence.

Air plants drain nothing from the host; they obtain all necessary water and nutrients from the surrounding atmosphere. They are hardy plants that require little maintenance; they are ideal for novice gardeners or those that struggle to keep house plants alive.

Where do Air Plants Come From?

In the wild, air plants prefer humid conditions, why they grow more prevalently in rainforests. They are also adept at establishing themselves in less hospitable conditions, and thrive in deserts, on cliffs, and rock faces.

Most Tillandsias are native to West Indies, Mexico, Central and Southern America. They thrive in southern states such as California, the Florida Everglades, Georgia, and Texas.

Spanish Moss grows in abundance in several states, especially Louisiana. It drapes itself from oak and cypress in huge swathes that resemble curtains. You might recognize it called tree hair or beard and be surprised to learn that it is a Bromeliad, co-habiting with the tree and taking nothing from it.

Sadly, air plants are fast becoming a threatened species. It is due to habitat destruction or over-harvesting for trade.

Legislation is now in place stating that exporters have to prove the provenance of any plants before the sale. They must be able to prove they’re sustainably grown in nurseries and not taken from their natural habitat.

How do Air Plants Survive?

Typically, plants rely on a network of roots to provide moisture and nutrients from the soil.

Air plants need both to survive but harness them from the surrounding atmosphere.

The leaves are covered in thousands of tiny scales or hairs called trichomes. They are visible to the naked eye on many varieties but fascinating to see up close through a microscope.

Each trichome is an individual reservoir for storing water and nutrients until the plant needs them.

Types of Air Plants

There are two primary types of air plants: xeric and mesic.

Xeric

  • Xeric plants are easily identifiable by their silver, fuzzy leaves.
  • These air plants hail from dry climates, where they are usually rock-dwelling.
  • Their trichomes are more pronounced as they need to store extra water.
  • They can tolerate direct sunlight and require less frequent watering.

Mesic

  • Mesic air plants are native to shady places such as cloud and rain forests.
  • They prefer to grow in moderate humidity conditions.
  • The trichomes are less visible.
  • Mesic plants need watering more frequently.

It is possible to successfully grow both varieties when you understand the climates they come from and the amount of water and light they require.

Why Would Someone Choose Air Plants?

In recent years, air plants have seen a resurgence in popularity. Not only are they easy to maintain, but their dramatic foliage and vivid coloring add a touch of class to any home décor.

Maintenance Requirements

Air plants like plenty of light; it doesn’t always need to be direct sunlight, just a space with plenty of air circulation.

Hot and steamy bathrooms are ideal for those Tillandsia that prefer particularly humid conditions.

Most air plant varieties appreciate frequent misting. There are specialist tillandsia feeds available to add to the spray for the occasional treat.

misting air plants

They prefer ‘dirty’ water; faucet water is overly treated and too high in chlorine. If there is no other option, let the water settle overnight for the chemicals to dissipate.

Rainwater from a butt is the best option. It is packed with all the nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium the plants need.

Pond or lake water suits their needs; if all else fails, bottled spring water will suffice.

Home Décor

Air plants don’t need a container as they attach to all manner of weird and wonderful objects.

As long as the room has plenty of light, Tillandsia will flourish inside glass orbs and terrariums. They look attractive with seashells, driftwood, pebbles, saucers, or wine bottle corks as their host. Your imagination is the only thing limiting factor.

Air plants successfully thrive without being anchored to anything. They make great talking points when sat pot-less, adorning window ledges.

The small plants look incredibly stylish and add a contemporary touch and splash of color to any décor.

Great for Beginners

Air plants are hardy and it takes a lot to kill them. They are ideal for novice gardeners or those who struggle to keep traditional pot plants alive.

Some of the most resilient varieties include;

  1. Aeranthos – from the Greek, ‘aer’ meaning air and ‘anthos’ – flower. Small plants, needing the occasional quick mist to reward you with long spiked, green leaves with a stunning purple flower blooming from a pink bud.
  1. Ioantha – Very easy to care for air plants that require regular misting. Their spiky leaves result in multiple blooms of vivid red, orange, pink, and purple.
  1. Andreana – It is a lovely thin-bladed plant that grows into beautiful ball-shapes. These delicate pompoms produce bright orange and yellow blooms and prefer lots of air circulation and regular watering.

Do Air Plants Flower?

When an air plant shows the first bud, it signifies that the reproductive process is well underway. Unlike soil-loving plants, Tillandsia flower just once in their lifetime.

air plant flower

Many smaller plants bloom for a few days, some last for a few weeks. Larger plants might stay in flower for months, up to a year.

It isn’t until the flower fades that new growth occurs. These ‘pups’ can remain on the parent plant or be removed. Either way, the growth circle of an air plant starts all over again.

Final Thoughts

Air plants are a great alternative to pot plants. They are small, vibrant, and with over 600-species to choose from, there is undoubtedly something to catch the eye.

They take up little space yet enhance the room with their unusual shape, forms, and colors.

Air plants adapt to the conditions in the wild and absorb enough water and nutrients from the atmosphere; at home, they need a little help.

A mister bottle and a few moments each day are all it takes to encourage your plants to thrive, bloom, and possibly grow new shoots to expand your tillandsia family.

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.