Wondering how to care for air plants, aka Tillandsia? I’ve had air plants for years and am sharing everything you need to know to care for them indoors as houseplants!
Air plant care instructions: Caring for air plants as houseplants
Tillandsia, a genus of plants in the Bromeliaceae family, is a unique genus with over 650 types of flowering plants most commonly referred to as “air plants.” Tillandsia air plants hail from forested, mountainous, and desert areas of northern Mexico and parts of the southern United States, as well as the Caribbean and parts of South America.
When I was in Florida several years ago, I noticed that they grew in the wild, reminding me of tumbleweeds. Locals confirmed that they do treat them like weeds there, eliciting quite the gasp from this Marylander. I might have even taken a few home in my suitcase.
Why are tillandsia called air plants?
These plants are referred to as air plants because of two characteristics: first, the unique way in which they absorb water. Their leaves, which are typically green with a silverish sheen, are covered in special cells called trichomes that quickly and efficiently gather water and other nutrients from the air. Much of the time through humidity.
Second, they are also called air plants because you’ll likely find them high up in the air attached to trees, rocks, and more. Because most air plants are epiphytes, they grow attached to other things with little to no root systems. (Some air plants have minimal root systems that have evolved to withstand shifting soil conditions.)
How do I water air plants, then?
Because of their shallow to seemingly non-existent root systems, tillandsia plants do not grow in soil. In fact, planting air plants in soil will lead the plants to rot from too much moisture. I mentioned that tillandsias absorb water through special trichome cells on their leaves. Outdoors, this water generally comes from rain and humid air, while nutrients can come from leaves and insects.
How to care for air plants indoors
While air plants are low maintenance in their natural habitat, collecting everything they need from rainwater and the air around them, caring for air plants indoors requires a bit more effort. Indoor air is often very dry, which can quickly dry out an air plant. This is especially true during the winter. If the tips of your plant’s leaves are turning brown and crispy or are curling a bit too much, your plant is thirsty!
When you bring an air plant home, help it settle in by soaking it in room temperature water for about a half hour. You can use a bowl or a sink with a stopper, which is what I do. Ensure every part of the plant touches the water. I flip mine about halfway through a soaking session.
When you’re done soaking your plant, dry it off by setting it in a spot with bright indirect light. You want them to dry completely to avoid any rotting. After a few hours, you can return your air plant to wherever you had it displayed.
Tillandsia plants are largely patient with lighting conditions. The air plant varieties with more vivid green leaves generally tolerate more shade, while the ones with more of a silverish sheen enjoy more light. They generally do the best with bright, indirect light inside. Keep in mind that too much direct sunlight can burn your plant’s leaves and dry it out way too fast.
Most popular air plant varieties
I have owned a few different air plant varieties, but like a lot of plants with so many different types, air plants are usually just labeled as “air plant” or “assorted tillandsia” at stores and garden centers. Many of the different varieties also look really similar, so it might take some research to figure out exactly what you have.
A neat fact—the varieties with thinner leaves often hail from humid, rainy areas, while the varieties with thicker, more substantial leaves can retain more water and hail from drought-prone areas. Indoors, you can cut off the roots on all varieties because they serve no purpose. (Outside, they help the plants attach themselves to stuff.)
Here are a few popular varieties:
- Tillandsia xerographica: My favorite kind! I love it’s silverish-green leaves that look like long curly ribbons. Its leaves are on the thicker side, too. This variety has red or yellow flowers.
- Tillandsia aeranthos: These air plants have long curved, spiky green leaves that are thinner. The aeranthos produces pink and blue flowers. h
- Tillandsia bulbosa: This is one I see a lot in stores. It’s called “bulbosa” because its base it bulb-like. These are generally a bit longer and leaner than other air plants.
- Tillandsia kolbii: The kolbii variety also remains relatively small and lean, growing only a few inches long.
Do air plants flower?
Tillandsia plants generally have bright, beautiful flowers that shoot out on stalks from the plant’s main structure. Depending on the type of air plant you have, it may take years to see your first flower. Once your air plant flowers, it could last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Avoid getting the blooming flowers wet while watering the plant.
Air plants bloom only once in their lifecycle. When your air plant blooms, that means it’s ready to produce air plant babies. Once the flower dies off, cut it off to prepare for the new babies. While the babies will start off small and unremarkable, they will eventually grow into an air plant that you can separate from the main plant if you’d like to.
Are air plants safe for pets?
I couldn’t find anything from the ASPCA, but I did find a few sources that indicated tillandsia varieties were not toxic to cats and dogs.