Sculptural and Stylish, Air Plants Thrive Indoors with a Minimum of Care
Nothing But Air
Amazing air plants live their lives without ever touching soil, often high in the treetops. As indoor plants, they don’t really live on “nothing but air”—even air plants need a regular dunking to stay hydrated. But care is minimal, and because they are not tethered to a pot of soil, air plants (also called tillandsias) can be displayed in countless creative ways.
CARING FOR AIR PLANTS
Air plants, or tillandsias, are a diverse group (more than 400 species) of flowering plants, mostly from tropical and subtropical regions of North and South America. At least one tillandsia is native to parts of the United States: Spanish moss (T. usneoides), which drapes the live oaks and cypresses of the deep South in wispy veils.
Tree-dwelling air plants are epiphytes, not parasites, clinging to tree branches for support but not for sustenance. They get the moisture they need from the humidity in the atmosphere and an occasional rainfall, absorbing water and dissolved nutrients through the silvery scales on their leaves. In their native environments, tillandsias grow in bright, leaf-filtered light.
To keep tillandsias healthy indoors, try to mimic those outdoor conditions. Keep the plants in bright light but not direct sunlight. Because indoor air is considerably drier than a tropical breeze, you’ll need to supply extra moisture two or three times a week. Either dunk the entire air plant in tepid water for up to an hour, or mist the air plant until it is dripping wet. The finer the leaves, the more frequently you’ll need to mist. Green-leafed types also need more moisture than those with silvery foliage. Leaves that curl or shrivel are a sign that the plant is too dry. Give tillandsias a nutrient boost every month or so by misting them with compost tea.
Tillandsias can be purchased at many garden centers and floral shops. They are also available online at The Air Plant Shop
What Are Tillandsias?
They are in the Bromeliad or Bromeliaceae family and have roughly 540 natural species. Since growing in popularity there are another 200 or so hybrids that hobbyist has created. The most famous and delicious Bromeliad is the Pineapple. While we don’t recommend eating your air plants it is good to know they come from a great family.
Tillandsia has adapted to live in a variety of challenging climates around the Americas. You will find the amazingly hardy plants in the southern parts of the United States, Mexico and Central America and south America. With very specific evolutionary adaptations these plants can live in jungles, cloud forests, deserts and mountain highlands. The many different climates Tillandsia can live in makes for a large and diverse plant family that attracts plant collectors and hobbyists all over the world!
Plant shape and size is directly affected by the specific climates in which they live. Wet climates with abundant and consistent rainfall produce plants with thinner leaves. Deserts that are prone to drought or long periods of dry hot weather have naturally selected thicker leaved plants that are better at storing water like a camel. These plants also have developed involuted or curled leaves that help to protect it from dehydration. Microscopic white hairs called trichomes
that collect water and act as sunscreen are common on these desert plants. Cloud forest-based plants also have trichomes that help in catching clouds or moisture for its use.
Why don’t they live planted in soil? They have adapted to rely on their leaves instead of their roots to absorb their nutrients and moisture. Epiphytes, plants that grown on other plants, rock, and structure and don’t need soil to live. Epiphytes are not parasites, though. They do not take nutrients or moisture from their host. The internal structure and anatomy of Tillandsia have adapted to survive on varied hosts both alive and not. Their leaves are able to pull moisture from the air more efficiently while some have developed a camel-like ability to store water and survive in areas prone to drought. Being up in trees or on rocky cliffs protects these plants from damage done by foraging animals, flooding or erosion on the ground. Not that a monkey or bird couldn’t do some damage, but Tillandsia chose to take their chances up in the air and off the ground.
Carolus Linnaeus, a leading scientist from the 1700’s coined the term Tillandsia after the Swedish-born Dr. Elias Tillandz, a well-known botanist, and physician. Linnaeus was at the forefront of European botany and animal science. His life’s work inspired much of the modern day science that helped us understand the Tillandsia genus. These amazing plants are still not fully understood and the work of Linnaeus continues through modern day botanist and enthusiasts.
Whether you like to research each species and understand how amazingly unique and they are on a molecular level or if you just love to have air plants around the house, Tillandsia are certainly a family of plants that bring joy and wonder to any greenhouse or home.