Air plants look different than other plants. And their exotic looks may fool you into thinking air plant care is difficult, or not for the plant novice. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Air plants make great beginner plants and air plant care couldn’t be simpler.
Personally, I love air plants. Not only do they have a strange, almost alien design, but they can also grow in the weirdest of places (think fridge magnet or Christmas ornament).
Botanically, air plants are known as Tillandsia. And there are over 600 different species of air plants in various shapes, sizes, and designs. This variety, coupled with the fact they don’t need soil, means air plants can make for unusual and interesting displays.
They are low maintenance. And with this easy guide to air plant care, you’ll have no difficulty making your air plant a happy houseplant.
- BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO AIR PLANT CARE
- WATER & HUMIDITY
- LIGHT & TEMPERATURE
- PESTS & PROBLEMS
LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY – Beginner
What Are Air Plants?
Before we delve into air plant care, there are a few things you should know about this fun plant.
First, air plants are epiphytes, meaning that in nature they grow on other plants, especially tree branches. Because of this, they don’t have roots like other plants, just a few short ones to help anchor them to whatever surface they’ve attached themselves to.
The nickname “Air Plants” comes from their ability to get the majority of their nutrients from the air and moisture around them. In other words, they don’t require soil. And, in fact, you should not place your air plant in soil.
In the wild, Tillandsia are native to places like Mexico, Central and South America, and the southern US states. In these habitats, air plants get what they need from the high humidity and plentiful rainfall.
Fun Fact – Did you know Spanish moss is an air plant!
Beginners Guide to Air Plant Care
WATER & HUMIDITY
The name “air plant” might have you thinking these plants live on air alone, but that is far from the case. Although air plants can take periods of drought, if you want your air plant to thrive, it needs a regular watering schedule.
In general, the best way to care for your air plant is to give it a good 20 – 30 minute soak once a week. You can do this by filling up a bowl, tub, or even your bathtub if you have quite a few plants.
However, as with most plants, you might need to vary the schedule a little, depending on the environment.
This is especially true if you’ve put your air plants outdoors for the summer. If the weather is hot and dry, you might need to give them water a couple of times a week.
Important Tip – do not use distilled water!
Remember, unlike other plants, air plants cannot draw nutrients from the soil. Instead, they draw nutrients from the water.
Because of this, distilled water is too pure a source. Instead, use tap water. Even better, air plants love dirty water, so ponds, lakes, aquariums, or even birdbaths can make great usable sources.
An air plant takes in its nutrients through its leaves, instead of the roots. Therefore, when soaking your plant make sure you submerge the plant fully in water that is lukewarm or room temperature.
Here’s another important tip with air plant care. Once done soaking, it’s very important to allow the plant to dry completely before returning it to its housing.
Give your air plant a gentle shake to release any excess water, then lay your plant upside down or on its side on a dishtowel.
If you water your plant and immediately return it to its enclosure, it may cause rot to develop. And, unfortunately, once rot develops your air plant is likely beyond saving.
Sometimes, though, it’s not possible to do a complete soaking.
In this case, a thorough misting can do the trick. Not only that, but misting can also come in useful if your plant needs more than a once-a-week soak, as you can mist in between dunkings.
When misting your plant, aim for the leaves.
Usually, one spray will do for smaller plants and globes, and 2 – 3 sprays for the larger plants and globes. The key is to judge the air circulation and drying time.
Again, you don’t want to overwater your plant and have the roots and base of the plant unable to dry out quick enough.
Light & Temperature
Air plants love bright, indirect sunlight. Remember, in their natural habitat, many species grow beneath a tree’s sheltered canopy.
They’ll survive with artificial light, though it should be full-spectrum (fluorescent) light, as regular bulbs don’t emit a bright enough light. Also, if using artificial light, your Tillandsia will need at least 12 hours per day of exposure.
There are a few species that can tolerate a little less light, but when it comes to air plant care you should avoid dimly lit locations.
Since they’re native to southern climes, you’ve likely guessed that air plants are fans of warm weather.
In general, 50 – 90 degrees F is the tolerable range. However, they’ll need protection for anything colder than 45 degrees F.
So, if you keep your air plants outside during the summer, make sure to bring them in when the temperature starts to drop.
It only takes one quick internet search to see the myriad of ways you can display an air plant. From traditional terrariums to wooden holders, to geometric shapes, to adorable containers like my little Thinker (shown below), the options are really only limited by your imagination.
Because they don’t need soil, air plants can sit in just about anything. This versatility in displaying them is one of the reasons air plants are so fun, and such a treat to have.
Just keep in mind, however you show your plant off, the spot needs to be light enough and warm enough. On top of that, it needs to have decent air circulation.
Air circulation is another key component of good air plant care. Air plants draw in moisture from the air around them, and they need circulation to do this. Also, circulation is needed to help them dry out after watering.
If you need some inspiration, then check out this post on air plant displays by Balcony Garden Web.
Air plants will eventually start growing offspring, which are called “pups”. The parent plant starts producing the pup after its first bloom. But, have some patience. It may take several months or several years for a plant to bloom.
These babies are genetic copies of the parent plant and will grow at the base of the parent. Once the pups grow, they too will eventually bloom and produce their own offspring. And so, the cycle will be continued.
If you want to help promote a pup’s growth, you can cut the parent plant’s flower off at its base once it stops blooming.
When the pup grows to at least 1/3 of the size of the mother plant, you can safely remove the baby from the parent. The process is fairly straightforward.
While holding the mother, you can gently pull at the base of the pup. But, take a hold of the whole pup. Don’t pull from the leaves, as this can damage the baby.
Another option is you can simply cut the pup away from the mother at its base. Make sure to use a clean, sharp blade, and try not to cut or damage the pup. Instead, cut more from the parent side.
Once removed, give the pup a dunk in water, then treat it as you would any other air plant.
However, if the idea of cutting or pulling your plant leaves you squeamish, don’t worry.
It’s actually not necessary to even remove the pup at all. In fact, in the wild the pup would stay with the mother plant, resulting in beautiful clumps of air plants.
Air plants need little in the way of maintenance. Which is one of the reasons they make such great easy-care houseplants for beginners.
If you’d like to learn of some other easy houseplants, check out my post on the subject. It has a few good suggestions.
Fertilizing your air plant is not a necessity. However, if you want to encourage growth or flowering, you can add a pinch of Bromeliad or Orchid fertilizer to your mister.
Air plant roots are also nonessential – at least as a houseplant – and can be trimmed down if they’re not aesthetically pleasing.
As for pruning, if you’re noticing any brown tips or broken leaves, you can snip off the damaged part.
Tip: Don’t cut off too much of the healthy leaf. Remember, air plants feed through their leaves. Also, if you want to keep a more natural look, then trim at an angle instead of straight across.
Sometimes, as the plant grows, the older, bottom leaves will start to yellow and die. These can be gently peeled away. But, if they’re covering a pup, it’s better to leave them in place until the baby grows a bit larger.
And remember, whether pruning the roots or leaves, always use a sharp clean instrument.
Pests & Problems
Mealybugs and scale are the most common pests to bother air plants.
If your air plant has a mealybug problem, it will have a waxy cottony-like substance on its leaves. Mealybugs attack the soft leaves to get to the “sap” inside.
There are several ways to control and treat mealybugs, including dabbing the leaves with rubbing alcohol or using insecticidal soap.
Like mealybugs, scale insects will also attack your plant’s leaves.
They’re usually found attached to the underside of the leaf and along the infected stems. You’ll notice them as tiny shell-like bumps. As with mealybugs, rubbing alcohol or insecticidal soaps can be used to treat a scale infestation.
Although it’s rarer for indoor plants to have pest issues, it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on your plant. And, of course, at the first sign of pests, treat immediately.
Water & Light
When it comes to air plant care, water and light problems are far more common than bugs.
With regards to water, the best thing you can do is listen to your plant.
If the tips are browning or curling inwards when they shouldn’t be, your plant is telling you it needs more water. On the other hand, if the leaves are browning and looking soggy, he’s saying I’m too wet.
If your air plant is turning black, that is a sign it’s rotted.
Browning and curling leaves can also be a sign the plant is getting too much direct sunlight. Remember, air plants naturally live beneath tree canopies. In this case, you’ll need to move him to an area with bright, but indirect light.
Air plants are non-toxic to both humans and animals.
As you can see, air plant care is simple. The main thing to remember is that they get their nutrients from the air and water around them.
This means they need a weekly soaking with non-sterile water and good air circulation. Keep them in a bright spot where they receive indirect light and you’ll keep your air plant happy for many years.
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