This Air Plant Care Routine Is a Breeze

Indoor gardening doesn't get much easier than this. Learn how to grow soilless air plant at home.

By Audrey Stallsmith | Published Jan 28, 2022 10:34 AM

air plant care

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There’s an ideal houseplant for people who are averse to dirt, as most air plants don’t require any soil. Since they absorb water and nutrients through their foliage rather than their roots, they can be positioned wherever their owner prefers without a speck of soil in sight.

Of course, that doesn’t mean air plant care is entirely effortless. You will need to spray or soak your air plants, also known as Tillandsia, on a regular basis to ensure that they are receiving all the moisture they need, but you can wave an airy goodbye to the watering can!

Air Plant Care at a Glance

Common Name: Air plant, sky plant
Scientific Name: Tillandsia spp.
Soil: None, or orchid mix
Light: Varies by species
Water: Spray, soak, dunk, or mist
Food: Bromeliad plant food or low-nitrogen fertilizer
Temperature and Humidity: 50 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit
Propagation: Offsets
Safety: Nontoxic

Air Plant Characteristics

Most Tillandsia species grow in rosettes somewhat resembling spiky grass clumps or sea urchins. However, some air plants, such as the Spanish moss that drapes over tree branches in the South, have a more wiry and dangly appearance. Their flowers vary from the “tiled” pink paddles of T. cyanea and T. lindenii, which are edged with purplish-blue blooms, to the inconspicuous three-petal green flowers of the aforementioned moss, T. usneoides.

Native to tropical regions of North and South America, most Tillandsia aren’t hardy in USDA zones lower than 9. When considering how to take care of an air plant, keep in mind that those with the greenest foliage are usually rainforest varieties, while silver types are more likely to be desert dwellers.

Types of Air Plants

  • Tillandsia cyanea: This plant makes a rosette of thin green leaves about 16 inches wide, from which rises a 6-inch-tall paddle-shaped collection of pink bracts with pansy-like periwinkle blooms protruding from its sides.
  • Tillandsia ionantha: The upper leaves of this 6-inch- to 1-foot-tall plant turn red when it is ready to flower, with those blooms resembling purple spikes.
  • Tillandsia pruinosa: Sometimes called the fuzzy wuzzy air plant for its soft-looking silvery foliage, this Florida species grows about 10 inches high, and its pink bracts shoot out violet flowers.
air plant care

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Selecting Soil for Air Plants

How do air plants grow without soil? As mentioned above, these amazing little houseplants typically don’t require soil since the trichomes on their foliage absorb all the moisture and nutrients they need. However, the so-called “paddle” types like T. cyanea and T. lindenii tend to do best when planted in a fast-draining medium, such as an orchid mix containing chipped bark or a standard potting mix with additional pine needles to improve aeration.

In lieu of potting other air plant species, there are many alternatives to consider. You can place them in shallow containers such as saucers or even seashells, insert them into suspended glass globes with ventilation holes, or get extra creative by attaching several to a piece of driftwood with fishing line to make an air plant “tree.” For the lattermost option, just ensure that the perch isn’t treated wood and is either porous or emptied frequently enough that the air plants never sit for long in water, which can cause them to rot.

The Right Light

Care for air plants varies based on whether they are rainforest or desert species. The thin-leaved green rainforest types prefer partial sun, filtered sun, or bright indirect light. Meanwhile, thick-leaved silver desert varieties might be able to tolerate full sun.

If you are unsure of the preferences of your particular species, steer a middle course and try setting it on an east-facing windowsill where it receives only morning sun. You also should be able to please most Tillandsia varieties by placing them near a south-facing window with a sheer curtain between them and possibly damaging midday rays.

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Watering Air Plants

Because they require little other care, the question of how to grow air plants largely centers around watering. You can spray your Tillandsia heavily a couple of times per week, preferably with room-temperature rainwater or spring water, each of which can supply nutrients, too. Alternatively, soak them in a lukewarm bowl of water for up to 12 hours once per week, turning them upside down to dry afterward.

There are some exceptions that shouldn’t soak, though. Bulbous air plant types should be dunked briefly and shaken every other day instead. Those with unusually fine or fuzzy foliage should only be misted every other week. Whichever way you water your air plants, do so only enough that they completely dry out again within 4 hours. Additionally, the containers they’re returned to after watering shouldn’t enclose them enough to prevent air movement. As for “paddle” types, irrigate them as you would orchids, and water their potting mix a couple of times per week.

Fertilizing Air Plants

When it comes down to air plant care, lax housekeepers may actually have an advantage over their tidier peers, since Tillandsia absorb some nutrients from dust and debris. If you fear your house is too spotless for an air plant, you may want to mix either bromeliad plant food or a low-nitrogen fertilizer into the water you use for soaking or misting.

During spring and summer only, fertilize air plants once a month. For soilless plants, use a quarter of the amount of fertilizer recommended on the packaging. For plants growing in orchid bark, use half of the recommended fertilizer amount. In all cases, the plant food and fertilizer should contain no boron, copper, or zinc.

Setting the Temperature and Humidity

From spring through autumn, your air plants should receive warm temperatures up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. In winter, move them to a location with temperatures nearer to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This cooler “season” reportedly helps spur them into blooming, which most often occurs in late winter or midsummer.

When taking care of air plants, keep in mind that the green rainforest varieties require high humidity. Therefore, you may want to place rainforest types atop a humidity tray, in a bathroom, or near a sink. Silver varieties tend to be desert dwellers, so they can usually get by with less humidity.

Propagating Air Plants

Because Tillandsia only blooms once before going into a gradual decline, it will generally produce offsets (called pups) around its base after flowering, and these can carry on once the original plant fades away. If you prefer, you can leave those in place to eventually form a clump, or you can detach some of the progeny to share with others.

To remove air plant offsets, wait until the pups are about one-third of the mother plant’s size. Shortly after you have watered the mother plant, use a sharp, sterilized knife to cut the offsets free. Allow the division wounds on all the plants to callous over for a few days before attempting to water them again.

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Safety Considerations

Air plants aren’t toxic to either pets or people, but they could potentially present a choking hazard to young children or pets. It’s best to keep them out of reach of children and animals for this reason. Hanging them in glass globes or a similar hanging container may be the best option for you in this case, but ensure that they are well secured so they don’t fall or break.

It’s not a good idea to handle air plants more frequently than necessary. However, that is for their own safety rather than yours, as the “receptors” with which they take in nutrients and water can be damaged this way.

Potential Pests and Diseases

How do you take care of air plants when they begin to dry up, brown, or fall apart? Although they generally don’t suffer from insect pests, they can shrivel due to underwatering, rot from overwatering or poor air movement, or burn as a consequence of excessive sun exposure. As long as a shriveled plant hasn’t completely dried up, you can often revive an air plant by soaking it as detailed in the “Watering Air Plants” section above.

Rot generally begins as dark, wet-looking brown spots near the base of your air plant. You may be able to stop it by removing affected outer leaves, making sure that the interior of the plant is dry and dusting it with an antifungal such as cinnamon. Sunburn causes dryer-looking lighter brown splotches. There, too, you may want to remove the affected outer foliage before shifting the plant to a less sunny location.

FAQs About Air Plant Care

For a quick air plant care guide, the below answers to common inquiries cover several of the basics. Your questions won’t be left hanging in the air along with those plants!

Q. How long can air plants go without water?

Some of the fuzzier Tillandsia varieties with the most trichomes can last 2 weeks or more without water, but most air plants should go no more than 2 weeks without water.

Q. Where do you put air plants?

You can place them atop shallow containers, in metal holders, and in well-ventilated glass spheres, or you can “mount” them on pieces of untreated wood—among other options.

Q. What is the lifespan of an air plant?

The original plant will only live until it flowers, after which point it will give way to its offspring. However, a clump can survive for 5 years or more.

Q. Can I soak air plants overnight?

You can soak most air plants for up to 12 hours, as long as your home is arid enough that they will dry out within 4 hours afterward. Setting the plant on a paper or cloth towel after watering can speed the drying process.

Q. How often should I mist my air plant?

Although most can be sprayed or soaked, those with very thin or very fuzzy foliage should be misted. Mist wispy air plants every other day and fuzzy ones every other week.

Q. Do you soak air plants upside down?

No, but you should turn them upside down to dry after you have soaked them.

Looking for more low-maintenance houseplants? Check out our guides on caring for snake plant, jade plant, and peace lily.