Getting Started: Air Plants

Get a primer on beautiful air plants and learn how to provide the proper care, including watering, light, and troubleshooting.

Photo from Creative Terrariums

Tillandsias, or “air plants” as they are more commonly called, belong to the Bromeliaceae (bromeliads) family. With over 500 distinct species, they come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. Tillandsias are native to the forests, deserts, and mountains of the Americas. In parts of the southeastern United States, where the climate is mostly sunny and humid, you’ll find Tillandsia usneoides (Spanish moss) cascading over withering branches of old oak trees. In the deserts and tropical forests of Central and South America, you’ll find incredible species of Tillandsia clinging to trees and rocks while happily sunbathing and drinking in the morning dew.

Tillandsias are considered epiphytes, meaning they use their leaves instead of roots to take in water and nutrients from the air. Unlike ordinary plants, tillandsias can survive just fine without soil — hence the name “air plant.” In their natural habitat, they use their roots to anchor themselves to tall trees where they can be closer to the sunlight and have better airflow around their leaves.

Air plants sport trichomes (that cute peach fuzz you see on their leaves) to collect water and nutrients. Trichomes also help protect them from insects and shield them from intense sunlight. Think of it as a natural sunscreen: the more trichomes you can see on an air plant, the higher the SPF and the more it can tolerate intense sunlight.

Xeric and Mesic

Tillandsias can be classified as two distinct groups, xeric and mesic. Xeric (from the Greek word for “dry”) tillandsias are native to desert climates. Tillandsia xerographica has flat pale green leaves to catch as much direct sunlight as possible. Xeric varieties are popular at garden centers because they are drought tolerant and will easily survive if you forget to water them for a bit or go on vacation for a couple of weeks.

Mesic tillandsias are native to tropical climates and insist on being kept hydrated.



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