Air Plant Care 101

Interest in air plants is sky-high right now. After all, who can resist their velvet-ribbon foliage? Their delicate neon blooms? Or the astounding fact that they don't need soil to grow — and can be placed in clever little nooks like living sculptures? We at The Horticult certainly can't resist them.

But air plants (also known as tillies, or tillandsias, after their genus name) can be tricky to keep alive. Well-intentioned lovers of these plants might mistake "no soil" for "no water," which isn't the case. "Air plant" does not mean "breatharian of the plant world."

Air plant varieties.
credit: The Horticult
Air plants come in a wide variety of sizes, colors and shapes. The one thing they have in common? They do not need soil to survive. They receive their nutrients through their leaves.

As epiphytes, tillandsias grow innocuously on larger structures like trees, and pull hydration and nutrients from the air, rain and debris. Tillandsias absorb their essentials through their foliage (not through their roots, which are there instead for leverage), so they need to be watered regularly. They also have specific needs when it comes to circulation, light, and maintenance. Read on for these tips on keeping your tillies in tip-top shape…

Tillandsia neglecta mounted on board.
credit: The Horticult
A large cluster of Tillandsia neglecta cling to this board at the US National Botanical Garden in Washington, DC.

Step 1 Before You Buy, Find Good Light and Circulation for Your Air Plants

You know those glass orbs often sold alongside tillandsias? They're hip, but not necessarily healthy. Tillies need airflow and bright light to thrive. So find a spot — whether indoors or outdoors — that gets circulation, as well as bright but indirect light.

When we grow them inside, we always place them near a window. (When entertaining, sometimes we move them temporarily to a more stylish spot.) We've had the best luck when we grow them outdoors, under a tree or eave so that they do not get direct midday sunlight and receive excellent air circulation.

Air plants placed on trees.
credit: The Horticult
Air plants survive very well resting or tied loosely to trees with small canopies providing bright filtered light.

Step 2 Get Your Tillandsias

Acquire your air plants from a trusted source. That could be a local nursery, home furnishings store (where the plants are stored near a light source), or online. We've had great luck with highly rated online sources that sell directly from their greenhouses, at discount/wholesale prices. Get a variety! Try different types, and see what you like and what you can keep alive in your space and your lifestyle.

Air plant wholesale order.
credit: The Horticult
We order our air plants in large quantities.

Step 3 Choose Your “Planter”

This can be the nook of a tree, a shelf, or a planter designed specifically for tillandsias. You can even make your own air plant stands or frames out of aluminum wire or with a metal grid from your local hardware store. Place your air plant habitat in the kind of spot determined in Step 1.

Air plants outdoors.
credit: The Horticult
We built an air plant cage for our tillies out of wire mesh and positioned them under the canopy of a tree.
Aluminum wire to mount your airplants.
credit: The Horticult
Wrapping aluminum wire is an easy method to mount air plants.

Step 4 Water Your Air Plants

The Technique

Misting is a good, quick way to hydrate your plants between soaking or drenching. Mist your plants as little as once a week in humid climates or as often as every day in dry climates. Use a spray bottle with a wide spray pattern to thoroughly wet the leaves.

Misting air plants.
credit: The Horticult
Misting your plants a couple of times a week helps to keep them hydrated.

Drench weekly by running under a stream of water or immersing for a minute or two in a bowl of water. For many species of air plants, this will be enough in humid climates with good air circulation.

Drenching air plants.
credit: The Horticult
Drenching your air plants can be done inside or outside.

If plants appear to be drying out even with weekly drenchings, apply a weekly or bi-weekly soaking regimen. If you miss weekly drenching for more than two weeks, soak thirsty plants for up to five hours. Always keep blooms above water level.

Soaking air plants.
credit: The Horticult
Soak thirsty plants between one and five hours. Keep blooms above water level.

After soaking, shake off excess water and place them in a location with good circulation so they can dry completely within four hours. Lingering moisture or puddling water can lead to rot.

Puddling water in broad leafed air plants.
credit: The Horticult
Shake out excess water from air plants after soaking.

What kind of water?

Reverse osmosis or rainwater is ideal. Tap water can be used to drench or soak your plants, but high chlorine content could cause damage. Distilled water is not advised, as it can actually leach nutrients from your plant.

Step 5 Mind Your Pups

An air plant flowers once in its lifetime, and during that time will often begin to develop a pup, or offset, at its base. That's the offspring! As the pup grows, the parent will slowly fade. When the pup has gotten at least one-third the size of its parents, often you can separate the two by gently pulling them apart with a slight twist — but this is completely optional. If they do not separate easily, the pup may not be ready to survive on its own. If you do separate them, take care to keep the pup's structure in tact.

Varying offsets.
credit: The Horticult
Offset plants, or pups, look different across varying species.

Step 6 Consider Pruning and Feeding

You will likely find dried brown leaves at the base of your plant, which is totally normal. Feel free to trim them with a pair of shears, but make sure there are no small pups within the dried foliage. Some pups can be as small as an eraser tip and can hide in the dried leaves.

You don't necessarily need to fertilize, but for more robust flowers and pups, fertilize once a month (in spring, summer and early fall) with a water-soluble bromeliad or orchid fertilizer added to your mister and diluted to one-quarter strength.

Fertilizing air plants.
credit: The Horticult
Apply diluted fertilizer with a wide spray mister.