Air plants are a unique breed and super handy for anyone who finds they have a real knack for killing plants. These hardy things survive a range of conditions.
As the name suggests, they need air, but they’ll need a bit more than that to flourish, bloom and produce pups (little baby plants).
Consider this your absolute reference guide for all things air plants, because covered here, you’ll learn about…
- Why these sturdy plants hands-down beat soil-based plants
- How to make sure you buy the best pups to start your grow healthily (sustainable sourcing of air plant pups)
- The types of air plants available (and the ones most likely to bloom in your home or garden conditions)
- The perfect conditions for growing beautiful air plants
- Tips on decorating and mounting techniques to present your air plants like a pro
- How to nourish your air plants with the right type and right amount of water (and when to use fertilizer as well)
- How to care for your air plant pups, when to separate them from the mother plant and how to go about doing just that
The bottom line is with this: you can give a 12-year old an air plant, tell them to follow this guide and they’ll be growing gorgeous air plants that would put some brown-thumbed gardeners to shame.
Air plants really are superbly simple for growing in any conditions. You just need know what those conditions are, and you will know that shortly.
Exploring the Why Behind Choosing to Grow Air Plants
Of all the plants in the world, air plants are the only type to grow on another host, like trees, branches, rocks and even sand in desert climates. They don’t need much, aside from moisture.
So easy to care for, nurture and snip off little baby pups to start plant life anew, the ease and the benefits are astonishing. Especially for closet spaces, offices and areas with little to no direct sunlight. Yup, you can grow plants without the sunshine. They don’t need any vitamin D.
Another benefit is that you don’t have to worry about plant pests as much as you do with soil-based house plants.
Give these plants air and an occasional drink and they’ll grow into almighty sturdy house plants requiring minimum maintenance. They’re so hardy, you’ll likely struggle to kill them.
Did you know: Plants around your home will lift your mood?
That’s less stress and that means, lower blood pressure and a better night’s sleep because air plants detoxify the air, leading to less mind fog. In other words, they help declutter your mind.
Productivity wise, you’ll get more done in less time. House plants of all types help you focus better, think clearer and be more creative. You’ll get your house in order faster, more efficiently and you won’t be worrying about caring for your plant because it’s so darn easy.
And get this, they’ll even help get rid of your cold faster. Weh-hay!
They’re full of color too. You’re not going to get green all year round for all the years they’re around. During bloom, there’s a rainbow of colors – from reds, to purples, blue hues, magenta, and many more.
What color will yours be?
You’ll need to wait ‘til it blooms to find out. Colors vary depending on the type of air plant you’re growing.
One last thing to keep in mind is you only really need to be taking good care of your plant for its first month in its new home. After that, it’ll have adapted to the new climate and will continue growing with less care and attention needed.
The first month, they need more active care to make sure they’re not soaking up the water too fast. Little and often is best in the first month, and gradually begin to drop back how often you water it.
What You Ought to Know Before You Buy Any Air Plant Pup
Climate is crucial for air plants. Think of the heat in the South of America, the warm parts of Asia or even Mexico. Those are tropical climates and that’s what these plants are after. Hot and humid. They love that.
That said, you still have choices to make.
- The size the plant grows to
- The growing space you can give it
- The look of it – leafy or colorful, spiky leaves or palm-like leaves?
The color will nearly always be green but there’s going to be different shades.
The smaller the space you have, the smaller the plant to buy. Definitely check the size to expect the plant to grow to as it might become too big for the space you have to give it.
Want to know the best place to buy healthy air plant pups?
Be warned though… You’ll be hit with premium prices because they’re grown with care, expert hands and a wealth of knowledge to help you with anything you’re unsure of.
Specialty growers are adept at snipping the pups just at the right time – when they’re a third of the size of the parent plant.
Since they’re online though… They need to be shipped and that’s where problems creep up. You can wind up with a dehydrated air plant right out the box.
Shipping should not be weeks away. The more local the supplier, the healthier the pups you should be getting.
Locals with a creative touch are finding themselves making some stunning air plant displays. There’s glass terrariums, shell containers, suspended planters, pods and pots. Wall mounts too.
You might be able to find some super designs at a local plant market, or a craft fair. A bit of luck is involved, but if you do find one, you’ll be able to take it home right away and it’ll be ready to start growing without needing any bathing or as much misting in its early days.
The best way to make sure you’re getting a good plant is to buy from the growers in person directly.
Quiz them. Ask if they know the species, where it’s native to so you can find out the growing conditions it’ll need and the ideal placement for whichever species you’re interested in.
Taking the inquisitive approach, you’ll find out things like the Ionantha Guatamala air plant is among the sturdiest and hardiest plant. Starts with plenty of green with reddy/pink shades transitioning in from the middle with pointy spiky leaves. When it blooms, it goes from the red/pink and green to sprout a burst of bright yellow flowers and some purple on parts of the leaves. In comparison with the Butzii air plant that looks great in a glass terrarium surrounded by cork bark and stones, the Ionantha is far easier to care for.
Now, the Butzii plant is a bulbous plant so after watering, you’re better to shake it upside down to get rid of the droplets from the bulb. If that isn’t done, it’s more likely to rot.
You’d be very lucky if you could pry that sort of information out of a generalist plant grower. Air plant specialty nurseries are the best source to buy healthy pups from, simply because they know one when they see one.
If you do happen to have a local nursery nearby, you’re best to know what you’re looking for before you go in.
Here’s how to spot the healthiest pups from any plant store
Your Checklist (just three things)
Check the color:
Leaves should be a rich green. There may be some dark parts but generally all the leaves will have brighter shades in the healthier parts of the plant.
The richer the green, the healthier the pups.
Squeezing the bottom of the plant, it should be firm.
In the middle, mush is not good. That’s a sign of rot. If it has a hard middle, it’s dehydrated. Not too soft, not too hard. Just firm.
Tug a leaf:
This is the ultimate test to tell if the plant’s got a fighting chance before you leave the store with it. If you tug ever so slightly at a top leaf, it should stay intact. If it falls apart, it’s dead or dying.
Don’t be put off too much if you find brown leaves on the last plant of the type you want. That’s fixable.
In fact, when buying online, depending on how long shipping takes, it’s often browning of the leaves that’s the first problem. It just needs a good soak in the bath.
For those who don’t have the luxury of hand picking from a local nursery, here’s some…
Tips for Caring for Air Plants Bought Online and Shipped to You
You’ll need to give the plant time to acclimatize in your home because they don’t do massively great with climate fluctuations. Like, no light to bright light, cold storage (back of van) to your heated home.
Gradually move them from cool areas of your home to warmer parts and don’t direct any heat from a fan or cold air directly at the plant. That’ll be too much too soon.
Transition the plant to the new conditions by giving it a half hour soak in luke warm water in your bath or a tub big enough to submerge the whole plant.
After half an hour, lift it gently, turn it upside down and give it a slight shake to get rid of the water droplets, then set it upside down to dry for about four hours.
Sunlight will help dry it faster. Always let the entire plant dry completely before you put it into any enclosure. Don’t put a wet air plant in a glass terrarium.
If you’re going to do any decorating, it’s stones, wood, bark, or rock for a base. Never soil. Air plants get all the nourishment they need through their leaves. They have no use for soil.
The Various Types of Air Plants
If this is your first venture into air plant valley, be prepared to be looking at multiple varieties as there’s different species.
Some say roughly 650, some 730, others 450. It’s impossible to be precise because Tillandsias are the largest species of the bromeliad family – all epiphytes – yet not all bromeliads are air plants. Most bromeliads are outdoor plants grown in soil. Epiphytes are indoor air plants that don’t require soil because they get their nourishment through their leaves and not the roots. The leaves keep the roots healthy instead of vice versa.
But then you have xeric and mesic air plants, which have different rooting systems. Smaller tillandsias are called Xeric (Greek for dry, meaning low humidity to grow them) and the larger ones Mesic (Greek for medium). The medium and dry parts in the name refer to the native region the plants are from.
Xeric air plants are the ones most suited to placing in shells or small glass terrariums or even open lidded jars. The reason is because there’s very little roots on them and the ones they do have are only there for support. They anchor to another host like rocks, wood and stones. None are parasitic so they aren’t going to feed off other plants. They only anchor to them for support, stopping them from collapsing.
Mesic tillandsias are the opposite. They do better in warmer climates, in sunlight and have long strong roots meaning they need to be watered more often. So, not all air plants are the same.
Often, you’ll read that air plants are the easiest to grow because they take little to no watering and can fend for themselves. That’s not universally true. They can put up with a fair amount of neglect, but there’s more mileage in a Xeric plant than there is with a Mesic.
What Do Air Plants Need to Survive? (The Care Triage for Healthy Air Plant Growth)
Let’s grow those babies from the tiny pups they are and give them the TLC they need to truly shine. Raised with care, they’ll continually shine with healthy foliage and once a year, they’ll create a burst of color… and they’ll give you a bunch of pups too.
Raise more, or adopt them out to family, friends, colleagues, or onto your local plant nursery.
The only three things you absolutely cannot forget are these.
1 – Light
This part can be tricky because too little light and the plant won’t grow. Too much light and you’ll cremate the thing.
Aim for 12-hours of light, as close to sunlight as possible. There’s various grow lights you can use if you don’t have an area with a good source of natural light.
The part to pay attention to is the distance you have the plant to any artificial light source.
Generally, around 6-inches for LED lights, closer to 12-inches for HID grow lights and if you’re using the old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs, give it three times more distance because the heat from those bulbs is huge. That’s likely why they’re so expensive to run.
Remember this about your lighting system – Lights produce heat and heat affects humidity.
If your home has good sunlight for your air plant, they do well with up to four hours in sunlight but no longer as it can be detrimental to them.
2 – Water
Air plants don’t need much water as long as they’re kept in a fairly humid environment. That said, they still need to be watered.
You can disappear on vacation for a couple of weeks and not worry about them dehydrating because you can just bathe them when you get back. But, when you can, water them.
A good way to make sure the plant is getting good hydration is to mist it once midweek, then during the weekend, give it a soak either in a bath or a tub large enough to put the entire plant in.
Because, here’s the thing… you cannot drown these. Well, the leaves you can’t. The flowers you can. That’s when they’re in bloom and it’s the only time you need to change your watering frequency.
When your air plant’s in bloom, you don’t want to be soaking the flowers because they can’t handle it. Instead, switch from bathing to misting more frequently.
Naturally, this will need to be increased in the summer months. The higher the temperature, the thirstier the plants are going to get, so water them more when it’s warm.
3 – Air
Now, we’re getting around to the generic part that you likely already know. Air plants need air. It’s a simple concept but it’s so easy to get this wrong by overwatering or not pruning the plant when the foliage is covering other leaves, causing it to suffocate.
Every leaf on each air plant (xeric air plants anyway) need the moisture to feed the rest of the plant. Any leaves not being exposed to sufficient air can’t play a role in keeping the plant healthy. That’s when you’ll find yourself dealing with falling leaves, leaves with brown tips and a generally all-round unhealthy looking plant.
Without enough air being absorbed by the whole plant, it’ll wither away and die.
It starts by rotting, so if you start to notice the plant is browning faster than normal, it’s not getting enough nourishment, which can be caused by leaves not having enough exposure to the air around it, or it could be a combination of air, watering, and lighting problems.
In terms of where you’re going to put your air plant indoors, they do better with plenty of air around them, so somewhere near to a window but doesn’t get much direct sunlight.
The only other thing you’ll want to be careful with is any pets. These are pet-friendly, although for pet owners, they’re a tad too friendly. Cats and dogs will chew them, but that’s the same for nearly all indoor plants – real ones anyway.
How to Water Your Air Plant the Right Way
As air plants are found outdoors and feed off humidity in the air, the preferred water type is rain water. If you’re able to collect enough rainwater to fill a sink or just a misting bottle each week, that’s what to do. If you don’t get much rainfall or for watering during the warmer weather or a drought season, the water you use needs to be dechlorinated.
The easiest way to do that is to fill a jar with tap water and leave it overnight for the chlorine and other contaminates to evaporate.
How to Fertilize Your Air Plant (and do you even need to?)
You don’t need to use fertilizer to keep your air plants healthy, however, it’s not going to do any harm and will help keep them in tip-top shape.
If you are going to use a fertilizer, it needs to be a water-soluble solution and specifically for bromeliads because it cannot contain any traces of copper. If it does, it’ll kill the plant.
One that I’ve had good luck with is this gentle fertilizer from Cute Farms (link goes to Amazon). It checks all the boxes and seems to work well.
One thing to note about fertilizers is that they can help your air plant bloom. If you’ve had your plant a while, yet to see it bloom and haven’t been using a fertilizer, give it a try and you may just spur the process along.
Only use a fertilizer as often as the directions state. Overuse will only lead to problems.
What to Do With Air Plants (Ideas to Display Your Air Plants Like a Pro)
Air plants are a breed of their own and deserve to take pride of place in the home.
Here’s some ideas to get you thinking about how you’d like to display your air plants.
Using Natural Cork Bark
You’ll find cork bark sold in pet stores and in the pet departments of online retailers. Usually the reptile section. With a small piece, you could likely attach about 4 small air plants giving you the look of outdoors indoors and they can be attached to the wall or you could use wire to suspend it from the ceiling.
For wall displays, be sure to buy the cork bark flats or you won’t have a flat side to put on the wall.
You’d get natural wood like you’d find in a wooded trail with the air plants growing out of it. Although, you do need to attach the air plants to the bark. You can glue them. Just remember that if you do glue them, you’ll be limited to spraying the plants rather than bathing them in water. So, if you’re looking for a more of a hands-off approach, pick another design idea.
Here’s one for wine drinkers… you know that wooden cork you pop off the bottle, celebratory style? You can even use that for decor. Just use a tad of glue and stick your air plant right on there. How green is that?
Glass Terrariums for the Creative Folks
Terrariums are cheap and plentiful and available in a range of different shapes and sizes.
And get this… There’s no shortage of decorations you can use to put inside these glass containers either.
Create a cozy looking retreat for your air plants by placing rocks, crystals, pebbles, wood, and/or artificial moss. Don’t use real moss as it’ll hold too much moisture. Mix and match to your creative heart’s content.
The only thing to be careful when shopping for a suitable terrarium is that the lid comes off. You don’t want a closed terrarium as that’d prevent air circulation. Always get open terrariums for air plants. Get one of those and you can create magnificent displays.
Decorate with Crystals or Gemstones
Crystals come in various sizes and colors. Same with gemstones. If you’re one for experimenting, try marketplaces such as eBay and Etsy for mixed boxes of crystals or gemstones and see what arrives.
You could have rose and clear colored Quartz crystals and various colors of gemstones to put into a terrarium.
For the crystal blocks, depending on the size, those could be used singularly by attaching the air plant to the block. For something a bit more meaningful, you could even use a healing stone as the base for your air plant.
The next trip you take to the beach, make sure to collect some nice looking sea shells. You’ll be amazed at the attractive displays you can create given the variety of colors, shades and textures. A touch of glue to the air plant and you can sit them on shelves, window ledges, or attach wire to the underside and hang the air plants upside down – just like they have a little hat on.
The Traditional Planters
If you’d rather be original, the traditional plant appearance is to just use a glass vase with colored pebbles or stones as the base. Never use soil because that’s useless for air plants.
If you decide to attach your air plant to anything, be sure to use a waterproof glue and not Superglue, which is too strong. Waterproof glue from an arts and crafts store will do the trick, and you only need enough of it to hold the plant in place for support, so only a small amount. More if you’re suspending it upside down.
How to Separate Air Plants (Growing Your Air Plant Collection One Pup at a Time)
Among the many greats of raising air plants is when new babies pop out from the mother plant, right after it blooms. The pups (offsets from the mother plant) are a genetic clone of your air plant and can be separated to start a new plant.
Or, if you prefer, leave it be to grow an air plant clump, which can give an amazing array of colors when they’re all in bloom.
Now, the number of pups you get from your air plant will vary depending on the type. Some produce one to three, others (although rare) can be up to a dozen.
Each new pup will grow into a healthy adult air plant and sprout out some babies of its own, so you can wind up with quite the collection.
What you do with them is entirely up to you. Keep some separate, grow a clump or two or give some away. What’s important is you know how to properly separate the pups so they can grow healthy and strong.
That part is easy…
Leave it attached to the mother plant until it’s a third of the size. You can leave it attached for longer if you like.
To remove it, you can just gently tug at the base of the mother plant to pull away the offset. If you have to apply force to get it off, it’s too early. Leave it be, unless you’re certain it’s over a third of the size, in which case a knife can be used to cut away.
If you do use a knife, cut away from the mother plant so there’s no damage done to the new plant. The mother plant will be the stronger one.
The Life Cycle of All Air Plants
Air plants begin life as matured plants. They remain attached to the mother plant until they’re grown into adult sized plants. They’ve still room to grow but they don’t start from seed.
Something to remember about the life cycle is they only bloom once. So, once yours has bloomed, there’s no amount of fertilizer you can add to make it bloom and produce more offsets again. That’s why you may want to be propagating the pups when they sprout because it will give you the mother plant for the greenery and the offsets for a rainbow of colors when the new pups are in bloom.
The mother plant will live healthily for years; it just won’t be flowering. The pups will do that. Then they’ll grow strong and produce more little pups. The cycle can continue, provided you keep the new plants.
You can start to grow a single air plant, turn it into a collection and change your displays up as and when you feel like it. There’s no right and wrong way to display air plants, other than in an enclosed space with no air.
Provided you can give each air plant plenty of light, water and air, you’ll have no problem raising a family of air plants, whether they’re separated or kept together to grow one big clump of a spectacular looking air plant.