All About Air Plants
Table of Contents:
Air plants are the perfect pair to succulents! Like succulents, they are very low maintenance and make an excellent, hardy addition to anyone's living home decor. Unlike succulents, they don't even need soil to survive! Although air plants have roots, they're only used as anchors to help them attach to trees, rocks, etc. Air plants "official", smart person, scientific name is Tillandsia, a genus of plants which falls under the Bromeliaceae family, making air plants close relatives of pineapples!!! There are over 550 species of Tillandsia, and even more hybrid species! They're incredibly prevalent in their native habitats in Mexico, South and Central America, and even Florida (home to 16 indigenous species).
Tillandsias are epiphytes, the term for plants that grow harmlessly on other plants and surfaces, and absorb all their water and nutrients through their leaf system, rather than the roots. In order to accomplish this interesting feat, air plants are covered in suction scales called trichomes that are made up of a combination of dead and living cells. When they come in contact with water, the dead cells swell up like a sponge and the living cells take in the water and put it to good use inside the plant! These cells also act as storage holding excess water for the long haul in case hydration ever becomes scarce. Trichomes give off a white, fuzzy, hair like appearance making it easy to spot which air plants have more trichomes than others. Air plants with more trichomes can have slightly different care instructions which will be highlighted later on this page.
Once in their lifetime, air plants will bloom! The timing and type of bloom depends on the species, but regardless of the kind of air plant you have, a bloom is always something to look forward to! From brilliant reds and pinks to yellows, purples and oranges, the beautifully colored flowers indicate the start of an air plant's reproductive cycle and little air plant babies called pups may soon start to grow from the base of the plant! These pups are slow growing, but once they reach 1/3 to a 1/2 the size of the mother plant they can be detached and can live on their own, eventually flowering and producing their own pups. You can also continue to let them grow on the mother, rather then detaching them, resulting in captivating clusters of air plants that make an incredibly unique form of living home decor!
Spanish Moss, a type of air plant, is a bit different than the other air plants we offer. It isn't a moss at all and its official name is Tillandsia usneoides. Like other air plants, it is an epiphytic plant that grows on other surfaces and organisms in a non parasitic manner. Unlike most of the other air plants we offer, however, Spanish Moss blooms every year, although the brown, green, or yellow flowers tend to be rather subtle and inconspicuous. It is perhaps the most abundant air plant in North America, and can be found in mass quantities on the trees, power lines and rocks of the southern US, as well as in Central and South America. The plant features one or more thin, heavily scaled leaves that can grow as long as 20', in a chain like manner.
Air Plant Care:
Some quick tips:
- Its normal for some of the lower leaves of your air plant to dry out as the plant grows and/or acclimates to a new environment. Any dried out leaves can be gently pulled off with no harm to the plant! If the tips of any of the leaves have dried out, you can trim the dried tip off and the plant will regrow! (trim the leaves at an angle if you want to maintain the aesthetic properties of the natural, pointy tipped appearance of air plant leaves)
- If you have an air plant that's been neglected and looking unhealthy don't throw it away if there's any sign of life! If your air plant still has some green, submerge it in water for up to 12 hours, let it dry for 2 to 3 days and then give it another 4 hour soak. After that, revert back to a regular watering cycle. Your plant may still survive and produce pups! Just make sure to the give the babies, and the revived mom, more love and attention!
- Tillandsias are NOT toxic to animals and are NOT parasitic (they don't harm any plants they grow on)
- Tillandsias are hardy plants that can deal with a wide range of temperatures (even surviving a light frost - although this should be avoided if possible!) but prefer generally warm conditions from 50 to 90 degrees.
Air plants live "in" the air, not "on" it, and like all plants, they need water! Although they're hardy and ready to take a beating, an air plant that isn't getting the right amount of water will go into a dormant stage, doing everything it can to survive its drought like conditions and stunting its growth and health in the process. If you want to make sure your air plants are as healthy as can be, looking beautiful, growing strong, and producing pups (air plant babies), make sure to practice effective air plant care.
- Indoor air plants should be watered every 7 - 10 days, but can be watered more frequently to keep them as happy as possible (misting 2-3 times between every 7-10 shower/bath would be perfect, but not essential) Outdoor plants may require more frequent watering as they are prone to dry out quicker in the drier environment.
- When watering air plants a good bet is to give them a nice 20-30 minute water bath. All that entails is filling up a cup, bowl, or sink big enough to fit the plant and then submerging your tillandsia so it can suck up all that moisture. After the shower or bath, gently shake the air plant to remove any excess water from the base and leaves and then let it dry in an area with enough air circulation to allow them to dry out in 4 hours or less.
- Every 2-3 weeks feel free to give your air plant a longer, 1-2 hour soak.
- The drier the environment the more frequent your air plant may need to be watered. In between showers/baths you can mist your air plant to provide it with some supplemental hydration.
- After watering your plant's leaves will feel stiffer and full of water
- Signs of dehydration: leaves feel softer than usual and appear lighter in color. Leaves are wrinkled or rolled.
- If you're having trouble deciding if your air plant needs water you can use the leaves as a test for proper hydration. If you pull an outside leaf and it comes off easily, your plant doesn't need water! If its tough to pull off, it might need a drink.
- The quality of your water shouldn't be an issue for watering your air plants. However, water with a ph above 8 or too much salt can harm the plant. Artificially softened water has too much salt and should be avoided as a means of hydration. Distilled water will actually pull nutrients out of the plant so definitely don't go that route! If you plan on using unfiltered tap water and want to be extra safe you can let the water sit for 12-24 hours to allow the chlorine to evaporate, leaving water that's healthier for your plants!
- Spanish Moss should be heavily misted twice a week or as often as once a day. It should be able to dry in about 4 hours after watering and if that isn't the case, try moving it to an area with better air circulation.
EXCEPTIONS TO THE ABOVE WATERING ADVICE:
- If you're air plant has a lot of trichomes (if its covered in a lot of white/silver, hair like fuzz) then your plant is more drought resistant than most tillandsias and you can water it less (both in frequency of your baths/showers and the amount of time under water). Soaking your air plant every 10-14 days for 10-15 minutes in addition to light misting every few days should do the trick!
- If you're air plant has very thing leaves, its more susceptible to drying out and might require more frequent baths or some interim misting to keep them fully satiated.
- If your air plant is in bloom, don't submerge the flower! This can cause it to disintegrate, wilt or rot. Give your flowering plant a rinse rather than a bath.
After water, adequate light is the most important factor to ensuring that your air plant grows healthy, blooms, and produces pups!
- A good rule of thumb is to give your air plant as bright, filtered light as possible without causing it to burn. When indoors, by a window or skylight is a good bet. When outdoors, shade is ideal since constant, all day sun will dry out and possibly sunburn your plant. Under a tree, patio or deck where your plant will get more indirect sunlight would be perfect!
- Fluorescent indoor lighting can supply your plant with the adequate amount of light but if your plant starts to lose its color or isn't as healthy as you'd like, you can supplement it with a more direct fluorescent desk lamp.
- Spanish Moss, like other air plants, likes bright, indirect light. If you plan to move your Spanish Moss outdoors be sure to provide it with adequate shade so it isn't exposed to direct sunlight all day long.
Air plants don't need soil or any rooting medium and may be harmed or killed by excess moisture if you attempt to "plant" them! NO SOIL!
- Air plants don't need any fertilizer, but if you want your plant to grow faster and produce pups sooner, you can use any balanced, water soluble fertilizer, such as Miracle-Grow, at 1/4 strength. The fertilizer can be applied by misting your air plant; don't submerge it in the fertilizer, that would be a bit overkill! If possible, use a bromeliad fertilizer to give your air plant the most tailored mix of nutrients!
- Fertilize no more frequently than once a month. Even just once a year in the spring would be more than enough!
Air Plant Life Cycle & Propagation:
Air plants bloom once in their lifetime, marking the start of their reproductive cycle. The flowers they produce are fascinating, coming in a vibrant variety of colors like pinks, oranges, blues, reds and yellows! The blooms can last from a few days to months depending on the species. Different species will bloom at different times based not only on their natural inclinations but also on the care and environment they're kept in. You can expect your air plant to bloom at some point between mid-winter and mid-summer.
For most species, air plants start producing "pups" one to two months after they bloom (some species start reproducing before or during bloom but that's more of the exception than the rule). If treated properly, your air plant can continue to live for several years after its bloom, producing more pups each year.
- The bottom leaves of your air plant may start to hang loose and appear dried out, but don't detach them; this is where the pups are starting to grow! The pups can look like small little nubs for several weeks or months as they start to grow. If your air plant begins to loose some of its color after blooming you have no need to worry: this is a natural result of the plant putting all its energy and nutrients into producing pups.
- Pups are basically air plant babies! They grow from the base of the mother plant and after reaching 1/3 to 1/2 the size of the mom, they'll be self sufficient and you can separate them by gently pulling it apart from its mom. Hold the parent and pup at their basses and gently twist in a downward motion to effectively and efficiently separate the two. This separation can also be completed with a clean razor blade, cutting as far down the pup's stem as possible.
- Parent plants will produce an average 1-12 pups at a time, although some species can have up to 60! If left to continue their growth, the pups will form a clump with the mother: people often look forward to this as the clumps or clusters are very aesthetically pleasing formations that make for an incredibly unique and captivating form of living home decor. If you decide to let your air plants form into a cluster, as the mother eventually completes its life cycle and starts to die, the dead leaves will easily detach after a gentle sideways tug. Once the entirety of the parent plant is gone, there's no need to worry about the hole she leaves in the cluster as it will be filled in by the growing pups and their future babies! If you want an air plant clump but none of your tillandsias have bloomed or are producing pups than you can wire a few together and they'll eventually grow into and around each other!
- Pup's will go through the regular air plant life cycle, growing into a parent, blooming and producing its own pups!
- Spanish Moss propagates naturally when pieces of its stem are transferred during rainy or windy conditions to other trees and surfaces. In addition, it can be propagated through division by separating side shoots and any excess strands. It can also be germinated from seed although this is a much slower process.
Mounting and Displaying Your Air Plants
By not needing any soil to grow, air plants are very versatile when it comes to display. They can be mounted to almost any surface using a variety of methods such as adhesives like E-6000 (or any water proof glue EXCEPT super glue), liquid nails, fishing line, or any non-copper wire.
- Plumbers glue works well since its waterproof and doesn't break down, while hot glue can give way after repeated exposure to moisture. Only use enough glue to hold the plant!
- When deciding what surface to attach your air plant to, avoid anything with copper (such as pressure treated wood) since copper kills air plants and remember that your plants need to be watered so a waterproof or water resistant material would be ideal.
- Air plants need air circulation to thrive so avoid enclosing your plant for extended periods of time. Other than that, just about any container will make a great fit! From rocks, seashells, and coral to ceramic, pottery or glass, the possibilities are endless! Pin your air plants to a curtain, attach to any surface with velcro, glue to a decorative stone or magnet or make a terrarium display.
- If you want to attach your air plants to driftwood that you got from the beach, soak the wood for several weeks to remove the salt residue which can damaged your plants. Some good varieties of wood are cedar, grape or manzanita as they are resistant to decay.
- Mealy Bugs [like with succulents]: they shroud themselves in a oval-shaped, cottony covering and eat the sap inside plant tissue. Their cotton covering protects them from predators and contact pesticides.
- the bugs usually migrate to a location that provides an ideal supply of nutrients and then congregate into large groups. These areas tend to be the joints between the leaves and stems.
- Light infestations can often be adequately dealt with using strong sprays of water or manual removal.
- Scale [like with succulents]: appear as tan or brown spots resembling marine limpet shells. Their shells form a hard covering that protect the insects underneath. They also eat the sap from the plants.
- can usually be found on the underside of leaves
-They can be treated like mealy bugs: dab a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol then spray with a diluted systemic insecticide if problem is severe and widespread.
- Alternative solution is to scrape the scale off with a plastic knife then wash with a mild liquid detergent.
Air Plant Fun Facts:
1) Other types of epiphytes (the kind of plant that grows on other plants without soil - like tillandsias) include algae like seaweed, mosses, orchids, bromeliads, and Spanish Moss (part of the Tillandsia genus)
2) Air plants are related to pineapples, as both are members of the bromeliad plant family!
3) Spanish Moss has been used for a variety of purposes in the past including, but not limited to: insulation, mattress stuffing and as fiber. In the 1900s it was even used to make the padding of car seats!
4) Other than growing pups, air plants can reproduce through seeds but this is a much slower process, taking 3-5 years on average