Air Plant Facts – Interesting Things About Air Plants (Tillandsias)

Air Plant

Last Updated on October 31, 2021 by Phil

Air plants are beautiful plants that are not only unique in the way they look but also in many other ways. In this article, I’ll introduce you to these wonderful plants by uncovering facts that you did not probably know about air plants.


Air Plants Don’t Grow on Soil

Air Plant

One of the most important things about air plants is  they do not grow in soil. As such, it is not a good idea to force the situation since it will cause you to waste your time and effort.

Instead, air plants are epiphytes. That is, they grow on other plants instead of growing on the ground like most plants do in soil.

They use their roots anchor themselves and cling onto larger plants like trees and shrubs.

However, it is important to note that they are not parasitic. That is, they do not steal nutrients or moisture from their host plant. Instead, they just “live” on them.


They are Members of the Bromeliad Family

While they may not look anything close to the bromeliads you’re familiar with, air plants belong in the Bromeliad family. This makes them close relatives with another unique looking, but more familiar plant, the pineapple.

As such, all air plants are bromeliads. But, not all bromeliads are air plants.


They Cling onto Things Using Their Roots

Unlike most plants, tillandsia do not use their roots to absorb water and nutrients from soil. Instead, as mentioned above, the primary function of their roots is to hang onto larger plants.

This is where they get their name. The fact that they look like they are suspended in the air.

Similarly, this makes them beautiful to look at when displayed at home since they can hang onto tree barks, other plants, walls or suspended in the air.




Air Plants Absorb Water and Nutrients Through Their Leaves

Air plant

Additionally, they use their long, narrow leaves absorb air and water from where they get their nutrients. Again, this makes them different from most plants which use their roots for this function.

They do so using trichomes which are small hairs on their leaves. As such, if you look very closely or magnify their leaves, you’ll notice they look fuzzy. These small hairs are the trichomes.

And, they are the parts that absorb water and airborne minerals to sustain the plant. Their furry nature also helps regulate the plant’s temperature.

Thus, trichomes are essential for the survival of air plants. And, it is one reason why you want to be careful with using tap water that have too much minerals. High mineral content can clog the trichomes rendering the air plants helpless as they cannot get their sustenance.

If this happens, over time, their health will deteriorate and the plant will die.


Air Plants Need Sunlight

Besides air and water, another important thing that tillandsia need is light, preferably sunlight, although they will do well under grow lights too.

That said, they cannot tolerate harsh sunlight like that in the afternoon or during the peak of summer. Nor can they take long periods of direct sunlight.

Instead, air plants thrive in bright, indirect light. This means that they do best near an east facing window. And, with some protection they’ll do just a well facing south or west.

If you home does not have access to good sunlight, another option is to use fluorescent lights.

Thus, when displaying your air plants, it is very important to consider how much light they’ll be receiving throughout the day and what kind of light it is.


Tillandsia Breathe at Night

Again, this is another thing air plants do that’s very different from most plants.

Since air plants cling onto larger plants, the canopy of trees and branches block a lot of the sunlight. Thus, they do not rely on traditional photosynthesis to survive.

Instead, they breathe at night.

They do so by using a process called CAM photosynthesis (Crassulacean Acid Metabolism Photosynthesis).  Here, air plants close their stomata during daytime to limit water loss. The stomate then open at night to absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen.

This process is essential for them to survive.

As such, when watering your air plants, you do not want to leave them submerged overnight as it will prevent them from going through their CAM cycle.


They Need a Balance of Air and Water

Air Plant

Speaking of water, this is probably the most challenging thing when caring for your air plants.

In addition to air and sunlight, air plants need water.

More importantly, how you water an air plant can make the difference between optimal growth and its potential demise.

About once a week, you’ll need to water your air plant by soaking it. Some growers also like to mist their air plants.

Watering is very important because Tillandsia are native to warm and humid locations. Most household will not be able to maintain that kind of humidity. Thus, you need to make sure it gets enough moisture.


Air Plants Will Tell You When They Need More or Less Water

The reason why watering your air plant is tricky is because you can over or under water your air plant.

Like many houseplants, overwatering is way worse than lack of water. With the latter, the air plant is better able to recover especially after a few hours of soaking.

However, the same is not true for overwatering.

If your air plant lacks water, the tips of its leaves will turn brown or curl up. In contrast, too much water will cause the leaves to look soggy.

The worst case situation is if you see parts of the plant turn black. This means it is rotting. Unfortunately, at this point, it is unlikely you’ll be able to save the Tillandsia.

As such, you want to be careful with soaking for too long. More importantly, you want to quickly dry the air plant after watering. Prolonged drying (3 hours or more) places it at risk of potential rotting.


There are Many Different Air Plant Varieties

Air Plant Varieties

There are a few hundred different species of air plants.

And, it is very difficult to identify most of them. I’ll be the first to admit that I have a hard time differentiating and identifying one air plant from another.

To make matters worse, there are cases when two plants of the same variety will grow to look different depending on their living conditions, especially climate. You can think of them like fraternal twins so to speak.

Also, many growers will cross breed air plants so new species keep popping up that look different from their parents.


Air Plants Rarely Flower

As beautiful as air plants are, it is a shame they don’t flower much. In many cases, they don’t flower at all. And, if they do, it will happen once in their lifetime.

That said, if they bloom, you can expect beautiful colors. The most common being purple, pink and red. Although, most species have flowers have no scent. Only a few do.

Similarly, how long they bloom will vary depending on the species. Some will only last for a few days while others will last for many months.

The last thing worth noting with air plant flowers is that this is the climax of their lives. That is, when an air plant blooms, it marks the plant’s old age (and the beginning of the end of the plant). As such, you can expect it to gradually deteriorate from that point on and eventually die.


Air Plants Propagate Via Pups

Since blooming is kind of the point of no return, you want to propagate your favorite air plants to make sure you never lose it.

Air plants reproduce by sending out pups. This can happen before, during or after they bloom. And, in most cases, you’ll see anywhere from 2 to 8 pups.

To propagate them, allow the pups to grow until they reach close to half the size of the parent plant. They will then be able to survive on their own and grow into a new plant over time.


These Plants Prefer Warm Temperatures

Air plants are native to the southern United States, Mexico and parts of Central and South America. Thus, they prefer warm conditions. And, they won’t be happy if kept in climates that are below 40 degrees for long periods of time.

Ideally, they prefer temperature to stay between 50 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

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