Where do Air Plants Come From? Native Origins Outlined

The popularity of air plants is rapidly increasing. Many people appreciate how low maintenance they are and how much life they bring to the home.

It is important to know where air plants come from; their native habitat dictates the amount and type of required care.

What are Air Plants?

Air plants are part of the Bromeliad family, with the given genus name of Tillandsia.

They are epiphytes; they don’t grow in soil. They absorb all necessary moisture and nutrients from the atmosphere using tiny, hair-like structures on their leaves – trichomes.

Tillandsias are hardy plants that adapt well to their surroundings. They anchor themselves to substrates including; trees, rock faces, cliffs, logs, even cacti. They don’t rely on their host for survival, just shelter. Air plants are not parasitic and don’t drain anything from the surface.

Where do Air Plants Come From?

The majority of air plants prefer humid, rainforest conditions. However, many species inhabit dry, desert regions.

The aesthetics of each different shows where it is from and the specific care needs it has.

Most air plants are native to forests, mountains, and desert areas of Northern Mexico, West Indies, South-Eastern America, the Caribbean to the mid-Argentina.

Many species inhabit Meso-America. The cultural region includes Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and the Pacific coast of Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.

Air Plants that Grow in The Everglades

tillandsia recurvata growing in the everglades
Tillandsia Recurvata Growing in the Everglades

The Everglades is a vast expanse of sub-tropical wilderness and wetlands found in southern Florida.

Around 20% of the region has protected National Park status; it is the largest area of its kind in the United States.

Tillandsia is the largest genus of the Bromeliad (pineapple) family; there are more air plants within the park than any other Bromeliad species.

The coastal mangrove swamps and masses of marshland are prime locations for air plant growth.

Tillandsias grow in all habitats of the park. Dwarf cypress forests, beneath the canopies created by the trees, in amongst the mangroves, or on lone trees, free-standing on their island.

Most trees have at least one species of air plant anchored to them. The Big Cypress National Reserve region of the park proves an excellent environment for intense growth.

Spanish Moss (T. usneoides)

spanish moss

Most people recognize the eerie sight of Spanish Moss as it hangs in huge curtain-like swathes from the branches of oak trees.

It is not one huge plant but thousands of small, interconnected air plants.

The silver-leafed Tillandsias use the tree as their host to create a spectacular landscape.

T. Utriculata

Tillandsia Utriculata

This large air plant looks similar to the head of a pineapple. It has large greenish-grey leaves that open out from the center to absorb moisture.

The well created by the leaf formation stores water for use in dry conditions.

Many Everglades creatures take advantage and rely on the plant as a drinking source. Tree frogs, caterpillars, and even the odd snake settle in the art of the plant when the temperature is unseasonably high.

Catopsis

There are two primary species of catopsis native to The Everglades.

1. Berteroniana

This bright yellow plant prefers life attached high in the treetops. Its iridescent yellow glow and shimmering powdery wax coating have earned it the nickname ‘Jungle Lantern’

The Berteroniana collects water at its core, cleverly trapping insects within. As they decompose, the reservoir becomes nutrient-rich; possibly the reason why the plants are so widespread.

2. Floribunda

The Floribunda is much scarcer; it is a favorite of the Bromeliad weevil.

It prefers life in wet, shaded areas at the base of trees, where it grows more than 2-feet tall.

During the blooming phase, it has a multitude of small yellow and white flowers growing from a tall, central bract.

The Everglades cover 20,000km². Such a huge expanse of land covers many climates, including temperate North America and the tropical Caribbean. Hence, many of the 660 Tillandsia species grow there.

In Which Climates do Air Plants Grow?

If you’re considering investing in some air plants for around the home, it is important to understand where they come from. Their favored climates and humidity levels are the most accurate way of deciphering how to best care for them.

There are three primary categories of Tillandsia growing climates:

Hydric

Hydric climates are wet due to the higher amounts of rainfall they receive. Picture the Amazon River Delta with its abundance of tall trees, creating a dense leaf canopy, protecting and providing shade for all that grows beneath.

Another example of a hydric climate is the windward side of the Big Island of Hawaii. Both are perfect environments for the native species of air plants that prefer growing in or near water.

Hydric climate air plants are rarely sold as house plants; most retailers only stock from Mesic and Xeric climates.

Mesic

tillandsia bulbosa
T. Bulbosa

Mesic climates see less rainfall than hydric ones; however, the plants remain most throughout most of the year.

Most mesic regions are in Latin American jungles, where the leaf canopies result in high humidity levels. Although there tend to be rainy and wet seasons, there are enough dry periods in between for the plants to dry out.

Air plants from mesic climates have shiny or waxy green leaves. They have fewer, less visible trichomes.

They enjoy lots of humidity, so enjoy steamy kitchen and bathroom positions. Just as in their native mesic habitat, the plants don’t tolerate direct sunlight and enjoy plenty of irrigation.

Abdita Multiflora, Bulbosa Belize, Guatemala, and Butzii are examples of some common mesic Tillandsia species.

Xeric

tillandsia in desert
Tillandsia Growing in the Desert

Xeric climates are the aridest of all. Conditions are more extreme than in mesic zones. Their native habitat is desert regions where the plants grow amongst rocks.

Xeric air plants are usually easier to recognize. The leaves are softer shades of green and silver, with a ‘fuzzy’ texture caused by the heavier concentration of leaves and trichomes. The plants have to work harder for moisture and food as they inhabit regions prone to drought.

The lighter green also leaves reflect sunlight on exceptionally hot, sunny days.

Tillandsias from xeric climates are hardy and resilient; they are ideal for novices as they thrive even during short periods of neglect.

Just as in their natural environment, xeric air plants tolerate less frequent watering and some direct sunlight.

Many Ionantha species, Harrisii, and Xerographica are some popular xeric Tillandsias.

Final Thoughts

Air plants come from humid regions and tolerate various warm climates. Cultivated Tillandsias need circumstances close to resembling their native habitats to flourish.

But, don’t let this deter you; frequent misting, occasional feeding and just the right amount of light are all the resilient plants need to thrive indoors.

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.