Air Plants Are the Easy-to-Care for Plants That Thrive Without Soil
Air plants, also known as Tillandsias, are the cool living décor items that will add whimsy to your home. These plants are easy to care for and require less growing materials than their leafier counterparts do (no soil!) but still offer some of the same benefits plant lovers want: a bit of life, a pop of color, and air quality enhancements.
What are air plants?
Botanically known as Tillandsias, air plants are epiphytes. That means that in nature these plants grow on other plants or cling to trees, according to Pop AnnMarie Chan, plant expert and owner of WLYDBNCH. "They are a genus of 650 species and are native to the forests, mountains, and deserts of northern Mexico, [south-eastern] US, and the Caribbean," she says. "They thrive by absorbing nutrients and water from the air through their scales and their leaves." But don't let the fact that they grow by clinging onto other plants and trees fool you—these types of organisms aren't parasites and don't feed on the living structures they rely on for support, meaning you'll still need to help them survive.
How do you care for air plants?
Because they are commonly referred to as air plants, Nancy Gallagher, a horticulturist and design and marketing specialist at Westerlay Orchids, says people tend to mistakenly think that Tillandsias survive on air. That's not the case, and these types of plants still need water. "I water mine once a week by soaking them in a tub of water for at least an hour," she says. "Then turn them upside down in my dish rack to dry." Gallagher says turning them upside down allows them to completely drain. "Many of them grow in a rosette pattern meant to collect water in their habitats, in a home setting it can result in rotting at the base of the plant."
If you live somewhere with drier air, you may want to up your watering frequency during the summer months. "Another misconception is [that] placing them in a high humidity environment like a bathroom will provide enough moisture to survive," she says. "While the bathroom is humid when you are showering, it is not enough humidity for your air plant—it will still need a weekly soak." If you want to avoid moving your plants around once a week, Gallagher says you can give them a drink by misting them, but if you go that route, she says you'll need to mist them daily.
What are air plants' light needs?
Tillandsias tend to grow in full sun in the wild, which is why Gallagher says they need to be somewhere that will provide bright light. "A southern or western exposure is fine for them," she says. But, don't worry if your home doesn't have a lot of naturally bright spaces, Chan says you can create your own. "Air plants thrive when you place them a foot or two from artificial light and like [other] plants, do best in indirect natural light," she says, adding that if you don't have a west-facing window, an east-facing one will do as well. And don't forget to give them a boost every now and then. "Fertilize them once a month with a bromeliad blend fertilizer (17-8-22) mixed and applied per the directions on the label," adds Gallagher.