Part of the bromeliad family (Bromeliaceae), the Tillandsia genus contains over 600 species that grow indigenously across North, Central, and South America, as well as the Caribbean.
Air plants have exploded on the houseplant scene. A decade ago, you’d be lucky to find one, but today you can buy them at nearly any grocery store.
The succulent leaves can be colorful or shades of silver, gray, or green and are long, thin, and strappy. The leaves can form rosettes, sometimes overlapping to form a cup that collects water. Others form clumps.
Some species have bright, large blossoms, and others have inconspicuous flowers that can hardly be identified.
There are two types of air plants. The first is thin-leaved species that thrive in moist, humid mesic regions like tropical rainforests. The other is thick-leaved xeric species that grow in dry, drought-prone areas.
Both have hair-like structures called trichomes that gather moisture and debris from the air.
- Genus: Tillandsia
- Native To: North, Central, South America, the Caribbean
- Sun Exposure: Early morning sun or bright indirect or diffused light, depending on the species
- Blossom Color: Red, purple, blue, yellow, red, white
- Growing Zones: 10-12
Caring for Tilandsia:
Tillandsia are epiphytes or lithophytic, meaning in the wild, they grow on other plants or rocks. They’re also considered aerophytes, which means they can get all the nutrition and water they need from the air. The root structure serves no other purpose than to provide support. On some species, they almost appear to lack roots.
These plants shouldn’t be grown in soil and they benefit from being brought outside during the warm summer months.
Xeric species need direct sunlight for a few hours each morning. Direct afternoon sun is too harsh. Mesic species cannot tolerate direct light at all and should receive bright, indirect light like the type you find a few feet away from an east-, west-, or south-facing window covered in a sheer curtain.
To water xeric species, every other week in the morning, run tepid water out of the faucet. Move the plant briefly under the water a few times. Alternately, submerge them in room-temperature water for one minute.
Mesic species, on the other hand, should be submerged for 15 minutes every two weeks. In between watering, the plant should be in an area with 50-80% relative humidity. A terrarium or cloche is ideal, or you can use a humidifier if you don’t live somewhere with high humidity.
Air plants often turn duller when they need more water and take on a greener hue when they have enough moisture. The ends will also wilt and droop when they need water.
Feed air plants once a month using an orchid fertilizer during the growing season from spring through fall. You can use a fertilizer mist or dilute a water-soluble food by a fourth in a water bath.
Potting or Mounting
Remember, you shouldn’t place air plants in soil. But you can put them practically anywhere else. Grow them on other plants or rocks, set them on shelves, shells, wood, or plates, or hang them from a rope.
Though there are hundreds of species, only a handful are available on the market.
T. tectorum has long, gray-green leaves covered in distinct hairs. T. usneoides, commonly known as Spanish moss, is a beautifully draping plant that can grow up to 20 feet long.
Popular T. ionantha has beautiful purple and blue blossoms on a foot-tall plant. T. xerographica is adored because it’s huge, with silvery-green flat leaves that curl and arch.
Air plants send out small offsets, which we call pups. Allow these to grow attached to the parent plant until they’re about a fourth the size of the parent plant. Once they’re large enough, carefully cut them away using a clean knife.
Once the plant prepares to bloom, the upper leaves of some species will often turn red. At that point, you must harvest the pups before the parent plant completes it lifecycle.
Common Problems, Pests, and Diseases
Mealybugs and scale are the two common houseplant pests that you’ll need to watch out for. While they don’t attack often, stressed plants are more prone to infestations. Less often, you might see spider mites on xeric species.