I constantly hear common myths about air plants that they don’t need water, even crazier that they don’t need sunlight. Turns out: they do. Don’t let that scare you away, though. Air plants are actually very hardy. When you take out the element of soil to worry about, the care is really straight forward. Even the blackest of thumbs can keep these guys alive and thriving with a little sun and a fairly simple watering plan.
A Little Bit About Air Plants
Air plants, also known as Tillandsia, are naturally found in Central and South America. They grow in several climates from desert to tropics and are part of the Bromeliad family.
The most intriguing quality about air plants is that they don’t need soil at all. If you examine one, you’ll notice they do have roots, which are used in their natural habitat for attaching to other plants. You can clip them off if they are unsightly or even use them as a good gripping material for mounting air plants to other objects, which is a whole other article entirely. Just don’t plant them in soil or they will die. They like to have good air flow because in the wild, they collect nutrients through the rain, dust and organic debris carried by the wind. They absorb the water they need directly through leaves by way of tiny trichomes, which gives them their velvety appearance.
Caring for Air Plants
While it does vary from species to species, nearly all air plants prefer indirect or filtered light. They need it the same that all plants do for the process of photosynthesis.
Depending on your climate and where your windows are situated, it’s best to avoid direct sun, which can dry them out. You’ll be able to notice by the dry tips of their leaves and can solve the problem by misting them in between waterings or scaling back their sun exposure. In Seattle, during the winter months, they like it best in the South or West facing windows. Probably not super necessary for those of you in those sunnier climates.
There are a few approaches to watering, but the quick and dirty advice I give everyone is to just soak them once a week for 20 minutes to a couple hours. Then just shake off the water and let them fully dry before returning them to their home if it’s a terrarium or vase. That is a fool proof prescription for success. Once a week and you’re golden. In drier conditions, more frequently. Some can get away with running their plants under water a few times a week. Other folks like to mist their plants with water. This is not usually sustainable unless you also soak. They may survive on less, but they won’t thrive, and much like my advice with the sun, you’ll be able to see curling leaves or dry tips if they are under watered.
Like a lot of plants, it’s much better to under water than over water, which is the most common mistake with air plants. You always want to be mindful not to let water pool up in their leaves. I thought this was kind of ironic, considering that they are part of the bromeliad family and bromeliads love to have a cup of water sitting in the center of them. Nature is truly baffling.
Again, it bears repeating: no pools of water in leaves, no sitting in water for extended time other than watering, and absolutely no soil. All these things can lead to rot, which is sudden death for air plants
Last, but not least, because your plant lives indoors and not out in the wild where nature throws this and that around, you’re probably going to want to consider fertilizer. Truth be told, air plants will probably do fine without, but it makes for healthier growth, faster propagation, maybe even a flower or two! Who doesn’t want a robust plant? Use a bromeliad fertilizer mix which you can find in any garden store. It’s super cheap to mix up and keep it in a spray bottle to mist.
Much like the bromeliads that you see in the markets with a big single flower in the center, Tillandsia can also spike a flower from the center if given optimal care and sunlight. They have a pretty interesting life-cycle because after they flower, they produce offshoots, or pups. The pups can be removed or left on the mother plant to cluster. Eventually, the mother plant will die off, but can stick around for years. If the goal is for multiples of pups, it’s best to remove them when they are about ⅔ the size of the parent plant, which will encourage the production of more pups. Letting them cluster can be super cool as well. Whatever floats your boat!
Like all plants, things can go wrong and that’s just life. With over 500 species of air plants out there, there’s bound to be some diversity, so the best way to figure out what’s best for yours is to experiment and monitor what works. Soon enough, you’ll have your own tips and tricks!
Best of luck to you on your plant adventures!