Air plant care cheat sheet

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What Are Air Plants? (Beginners Guide)

What are air plants you may ask? Well, air plants (Tillandsia) are a unique and fascinating group of plants that have adapted to life without soil. Their amazing ability to absorb all the moisture and nutrients they need from the air that surrounds them has captivated gardeners and nature enthusiasts alike.

In this article, I will discuss what air plants are and how they can be cared for in your home. We’ll explore their native habitat, the role of mother plants, and essential environmental conditions for optimal growth. By the end of this article, you’ll be an expert in all things air plants!

Definition Of Air Plants – What Are Tillandsia?

Air plants, also known as Tillandsia, are a genus of over 650 species of evergreen flowering plants. They are native to the southern United States, Central and South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Unlike most plants that grow in soil, air plants absorb moisture and nutrients from the air through their leaves and the tiny trichomes (hair-like structures) that cover them.

This allows them to survive in environments where other plants would struggle to survive.

Tillandsia are epiphytic plants and belong to the Bromeliad family. Native to the tropical and subtropical regions in the Americas these unique plants have adapted to grow without soil in a variety of environments, using their roots as anchors instead of using them to absorb nutrients.

Tillandsia is truly remarkable and requires minimal maintenance. However, they are best known for their spectacular vibrant blooms and unusual flower spikes, which often stop casual observers in their tracks. In full bloom, they really are an awesome sight.

Overview Of The Different Types Of Air Plants

Air plants come in a variety of different shapes, sizes, and colors. Whether you’re looking for something small and compact or something larger and more extravagant there’s definitely an air plant that will fit your needs!

Tillandsia is categorized into two loose groups: Mesic and Xeric air plants.

Mesic Tillandsia

Mesic air plants prefer wetter conditions and more humid environments such as rain and cloud forests.

Examples include:

  • T. Andreana
  • T. Brachycaulos
  • T. Bulbosa.
Species - Tillandsia Bulbosa

Note the soft green leaves of Tillandsia Bulbosa above. The leaves are typical of mesic air plants and appear vibrant with fewer trichomes.

Xeric Tillandsia

Xeric air plants prefer drier conditions with lower humidity such as arid and desert regions.

Examples include:

  • T. Circinata
  • T. Tectorum
  • T. Xerographica.
Species - Tillandsia Xerographica

Note the stiff white or silvery-green leaves of Tillandsia Xerographica above. The leaves are typical of xeric air plants and appear less vibrant with more trichomes.

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Popular Tillandsia

Popular air plants are widely available to purchase online. However, with so many different types to choose from it’s not easy to decide on which species will add value and joy to your collection.

Here’s a short list of some of the most popular and striking species:

  • T. Caput Medusae
  • T. Ionantha
  • T. Argentina
  • T. Concolor
  • T. Duratii
  • T. Streptophylla
  • T. Stricta.
Species - Tillandsia Stricta

These amazing plants can add life to any indoor or outdoor space whilst providing many years of beauty and enjoyment!

The Native Habitat And Location Of Tillandsia

Air plants are found in a wide variety of habitats throughout the southern United States, Central and South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Some species have naturalized and grown very well in the southern state of Florida.

Tillandsia are commonly found in tropical and subtropical regions where they are able to thrive in warm and humid environments. Some species of air plants are also found in mountainous regions where they are able to survive in cooler temperatures.

From the rainforests of Costa Rica and Mexico to the deserts in Arizona and New Mexico these unique plants can be found in a variety of habitats.

Air plants belong to the Bromeliad family and are classed as epiphytes, which means they grow on other plants or objects instead of in soil. Tillandsia will grow on trees, bushes, rocks, gravel, buildings, and even telephone wires.

All Tillandsia species have two things in common – they need bright light and moderate temperatures to thrive.

What Is A Mother Plant?

A ‘mother plant’ is the term used to describe the original or parent plant of a species from which offsets or pups are removed. Mother plants are especially useful for growers who want to start or expand their own collection. With care and regular propagation one or two strong mother plants can produce dozens of offspring.

Using a mother plant for propagation has many benefits especially if you’re new to air plants. First and foremost, a mother plant allows you to easily produce more of your favorite Tillandsia without investing in new plants or waiting for them to grow from seeds.

When separating pups from the mother plant I recommended you take care to avoid harming either plant.

What Is An Offset / Pup?

An ‘offset’ or ‘pup’ as they are also known to enthusiasts is a new baby plant that grows from the base of a mature air plant. Offsets are basically clones of the parent plant and share similar traits such as color, size, and shape.

Offsets are usually quite easy to identify as they’ll appear in clusters or rows close to the base of mature plants. Having said that, some species produce pups along their inflorescence (flowering stem). To propagate offsets simply twist and pull them away from the parent plant.

Tillandsia Ionantha Maxima with pups

A pair of scissors or knife may help when removing the pups, but please be careful and watch out for your lovely fingers and always cut away from you.

Whatever you want to call them, offsets, pups, or even offshoots, these clones are a quick and cheap way of expanding your Tillandsia collection.

The Ideal Environmental Conditions For Air Plant Growth

Nature provides the ideal environmental conditions for air plant growth. However, Tillandisa can also be grown in an indoor environment.

Caring for air plants at home doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. With just a few simple steps you can ensure that your plants will stay happy and healthy for many years to come.

Here’s a short guide to help you create the right environmental conditions for your air plants:

Light

Air plants prefer bright, indirect sunlight. Place them near a bright window or in an area with filtered light. If you’re keeping your Tillandsia indoors be sure to rotate them every once in a while so that all sides of the plants receive equal amounts of light exposure. Alternatively, if a room does not receive sufficient light, you can supplement natural light with specialist fluorescent bulbs or LEDs.

Temperature

Most air plants thrive when the temperature remains between 50-90°F (10-32°C). Be sure to keep your plants away from any extreme temperatures such as those found near heating and cooling vents.

Water

Indoor-kept air plants need regular soaking to stay hydrated. Soak them once a week for around 20-30 minutes unless you know which species you own. Some species only require misting 2-3 times per week. Be sure to let your plant’s leaves dry before returning your plants to their original location. I give my plants a gentle shake after watering to help remove any excess water. You can use soft tap water, however, rainwater is best.

Nutrients

When it comes to nutrients I use a ready-mixed foliage fertilizer. I apply the fertilizer by misting it on the leaves with a spray bottle. This allows the fertilizer to be absorbed directly into the plant’s leaves. Do not use house plant fertilizer, it will be too strong and burn your air plants. Use a Tillandisa or Bromeliad fertilizer. Feed once per month in the winter and twice per month during the summer months.

Air Circulation

Ensure good air circulation. Do not keep your plants in a room that often has a closed door. Instead, place your air plants in an area that is well-ventilated, perhaps near an open window. Some people use oscillating fans to help maintain the movement of air. Air plants however do not like cold drafts so do not position your plants too close to open windows and keep fan settings low.

Are Air Plants Adaptable?

Air plants are very adaptable and can tolerate many different environments, including low levels of light, irregular watering, humidity fluctuations, and so on. Tillandsia can survive in just about any climate including hot and dry or cool and wet environments.

Some desert species can tolerate direct sunlight or go without water for longer periods. Other species can only tolerate a few hours of direct sunlight during the early hours of the morning. Some types of Tillandsia can cope with lower temperatures, even frost, as long as the frost does not last longer than a few nights. Prolonged periods of frost will almost certainly kill your plants.

Humidity is an important factor in the overall health of air plants. The ideal humidity level for most species of Tillandsia is between 50-70%.

So hopefully I have answered your question and you’re no longer wondering ‘what are air plants’. Tillandsia are very adaptable, low-maintenance, and require minimal care and effort. With so many species and varieties to choose from they are the ideal houseplants.

Author - Stephen Little
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