The Tillandsia, or airplant, is often considered the houseplant for people who aren’t very good at houseplants. Don’t let that reputation fool you: airplants are a somewhat laid-back plant that heightens any environment. But they require specific care to reach their full potential.
There are many types of airplants, but the Tillandsia is by far the most popular. They are often compared to other houseplants, like Bromeliads, and Pothos plants because of their ease of care. But what makes them better for novice indoor garderners when compared to others?
If you’ve seen Tillandsia in your local nurseries or houseplant shops and wondered how these unique, almost otherworldly tiny plants do what they do without rooting in the soil, then keep reading because we’re about to dive into a comprehensive guide for growing and caring for airplanes!
- 1 History and Cultivation
- 2 How to Care for Tillandsia Houseplants
- 3 Planting Process
- 4 Pest and Diseases
- 5 Tillandsia Life Cycle
- 6 Popular Varieties
- 7 Frequently Asked Questions
- 8 Final Thoughts
History and Cultivation
These fascinating little plants have been around for a while and were discovered way back in the 1600s. Interestingly, Tillandsia is not synonymous with all airplants; it’s simply the name of the most popularly known family of airplants.
For those who think airplants have a bit of an exotic feel, you’d be spot on. They originate from both Central and South America and the southern United States. While they’re tropical in nature, these hardy tiny plants can grow in some harsh conditions and grow through neglect.
A unique part about Tillandsia—of which there are about 650 different cultivars—is that it grows outside the soil.
An Epiphyte isn’t an entirely new phenomenon in the plant world; multiple houseplants that have risen in popularity over the last decade grow on the sides of trees in their native habitats. Monstera deliciosa and many kinds of exotic philodendrons have this capacity.
However, Tillandsia is unique because, while these kinds of plants require soil to seed before they begin their upward journey rooting into tree bark, airplants spend their whole lives outside of earth. For this reason, Tillandsia is a true epiphyte.
How Tillandsia Grows in its Natural Habitat
Then, how do Tillandsia get the nutrients they need? Most plants absorb these from the soil, but Tillandsia is specially adapted to get moisture and nutrients from the air surrounding it and the surface on which it grows. Most often, in the wild, this includes tree bark and leaf debris.
In its natural habitat, the rainforest, Tillandsia plants can easily absorb moisture and nutrients from the humid air. However, airplants are very resilient and have developed mechanisms that allow them to survive in arid conditions as well—we’ll talk about this more a bit later on.
They also are adapted to require less sunlight than other tropical plants because they grow primarily under the tree cover in dappled light. However, they grow as close to the rainforest ceiling as possible.
Other Similar Native Plants
In this way, Tillandsia is very similar to many tropical orchids, which grow primarily on the sides of trees: a habitat you can see reflected in the orchid potting soil, comprised mostly of tree bark, that’s sold commercially for planting orchids as houseplants.
They’re also from the family Bromeliaceae, making them related to Bromeliads, which can have a similar growth pattern in the wild.
How to Care for Tillandsia Houseplants
While these plants are adapted perfectly to growing in their natural environments, they’re likely to need more than a bit of help to adapt to your natural environment—your home!
However, if you know what this plant needs to thrive, you’ll find they’re an easy and rewarding plant that offers unique beauty and can be quite a conversation starter.
Considering where Tillandsia grows in the rainforest in their natural habitat, you’ll want to replicate that as best you can in your own home for Tillandsia to thrive. Since they grow best near the rainforest ceiling under dappled but bright light, consider this when choosing a spot for your airplant.
The best spot will be one that shields Tillandsia from direct sunlight while still offering plenty of indirect light. Too much natural light will likely burn your plant, but too little won’t allow them to thrive.
East-facing windows are a great place to experiment with light conditions for Tillandsia. West-facing windows are notorious for providing unshielded access to the sun’s brightest and warmest hours, which most tropical indoor plants thrive under.
Some varieties of Tillandsia can thrive in shadier conditions, but most will appreciate the bright, indirect light of an east-facing window. This orientation provides enough light while also shading them from the harsher rays that will likely cause damage.
However, since you’ll need to consider more than light when choosing the best spot for your new airplant, it might be challenging to find a suitable area that combines the right light with all the other requirements.
In this case, you might want to consider artificial light. Many houseplant-specific grow lights are available for purchase, and these can provide an excellent improvised environment for your airplant.
Just make sure that you choose a full-spectrum artificial fluorescent light. You can position the light up to six inches from your Tillandsia but not more than 36 inches away. Under this sort of light, most airplants will thrive under 12-hour lighting, so a timer is a great option to help ensure consistency.
Water is a no-brainer when it comes to houseplants, and it’s also the one factor that can make or break the happiness of your houseplants. Although Tillandsia won’t consume water the same way as other plants, it’s still just as important to water them correctly, or else they can fail to thrive or even die.
To learn how to water Tillandsia, let’s go a little deeper into how these plants absorb nutrients. Airplants don’t employ roots at all; the delicate tendrils that extend from their base exist solely to help them anchor to whatever surface they’re growing on.
So instead of absorbing water through a root system, the airplant itself needs to drink enough water to live on. While some of this can come from a humid environment (such as your bathroom), Tillandsia still needs good watering on a regular schedule.
How to Soak Tillandsia
Depending on the variety of your Tillandsia, it will benefit from a good soak anywhere from once a week to once every two weeks. A sure indicator that your airplant is thirsty is wrinkled or rolled leaves that don’t feel taut.
To water your airplant, remove it from its environment (often a glass globe or a mounting block, which we’ll cover in a bit) gently so as not to damage its roots. Place it in enough water to submerge it thoroughly; you can use a bowl, a jar, or even a plugged sink.
Let your Tillandsia soak alone or in a group of airplants for about half an hour before removing them and setting them on a towel to drain properly and dry. After that, you can place them back into their environments.
Type of Water
Because Tillandsia soaks up water through its succulent-like leaves, you should be careful about what kind of water you use to soak it in. Filtered or bottled water are the best options; you can also use tap water if you allow it to sit long enough for chlorine and other additives to dissipate.
Using distilled, softened, or any other kind of water can introduce too much salt or mineral content and end up harming your airplant.
Other Watering Factors to Consider
Tillandsia is a highly adaptive plant family, so don’t be worried if you don’t have an overly humid environment to put it in. Misting the plants regularly can help simulate humidity, but be careful. Airplants don’t like to be continuously wet or to sit in water consistently. Water can cause mold and rot.
Pay attention to the texture of your airplant’s leaves, as mentioned above, to learn whether you should water them more or less often. In some home environments, the humidity will be enough that Tillandsia doesn’t need watering constantly. In dryer areas, an airplant might need soaking several times a week.
Also, make sure never to leave your airplant soaking overnight. While other plants engage in photosynthesis, or the release of gases similar to breathing, mainly during the day when the sun is out, airplants engage in a specialized type of photosynthesis only at nighttime.
So if you submerge a Tillandsia in water overnight, it can’t correctly release the built-up gases it needs for proper photosynthesis and will likely get waterlogged and rot. We’ll talk about this more in a bit.
While Tillandsia doesn’t need soil to thrive and will do very poorly if planted in it, it does require an adequate environment around its so-called roots to grow well.
As mentioned above, there are many different ways to “plant” your Tillandsia and display it. Some of these ways are better than others, so consider the following factors to decide how to provide your airplant with the best planting environment possible.
Here’s another area in which it’s good to remember the details of Tillandsia’s natural environment. Regardless of whether it grows in a humid or arid region, one consistent component is temperature.
Tillandsias prefer warmer temperatures. If you’re growing Tillandsia as a houseplant, as long as your home stays above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, you should be alright. For warmer zones, such as nine and above, Tillandsia can be grown outside.
However, like tropical plants, they won’t survive frost or any other low-temperature outdoor conditions. So if you’re keeping your plants outside for the summer, make sure to bring them in well before the first frost to avoid killing them.
Although it’s not a consideration most people keep in mind with other houseplants, most plants have specific needs for air circulation. It makes sense if you think about it: grown outside, all plants are subject to flowing air and wind.
Inside, it’s best to replicate that as much as possible. As mentioned before, airplants don’t do well if they’re constantly wet. Good air circulation can help prevent this. In addition to drying them out well after every soaking, Tillandsia should be kept in areas with good air circulation.
This drying comes down to ensuring that the roots aren’t covered fully with anything heavy and that they’re draining correctly. Ensuring the bottom of the plant is exposed to the air is the best defense against mold, water-logging, and rot.
Since Tillandsias prefer humidity, keep in mind that cold air circulation around your Tillandsia is not the best environment for drying them or displaying them. Your bathroom is a prime location for growing them, as is the outdoors in warmer zones.
Speaking of humidity, why is it such a big deal for Tillandsias? Most tropical plants are known to love a warm, water-heavy atmosphere, but it can make or break your Tillandsia’s survival.
The survival of this plant has a lot to do with its process of photosynthesis. As mentioned earlier, Tillandsia adapts for a slightly different photosynthesis method than most other plants. For plants that love humidity and grow in arid environments, CAM photosynthesis helps them maximize even the slight moisture around them.
In normal photosynthesis, plants synthesize food from sunlight and water through the exchange of gases; they take in carbon dioxide and release air, the opposite of humans. However, this process can cause a lot of water loss for plants.
For Tillandsia, when growing in an arid condition, water loss can be a huge problem. Engaging in CAM (Crassulacean Acid Metabolism) photosynthesis helps conserve water because nighttime is the most humid time of day in any environment.
This humidity affects Tillandsias during the day as well. Most plants must keep their pores, or stomata, open during the day for the respiration process. This process is how they lose water. Tillandsia keeps its stomata closed during the day, only opening them at night.
While this may seem trivial, it’s a fundamental fact to know for proper care of your airplant. Providing humidity through misting or even soaking is best during the daytime, as it won’t waterlog your plant then.
Let your airplant do what it does best and absorb the natural humidity at night time. If you provide extra moisture, do so in the morning to allow your plant the whole day to absorb it before night rolls around.
With Tillandsias, the sky’s the limit with planting. No soil, no problem! But it’s still important to consider their particular needs when choosing how to display or style your plants. There are many popular ways to “plant” these plants, but not all will lead to healthy plants.
Using hanging glass vessels to display airplants has become a popular and eye-catching piece of home decor. If you decide to go this route for housing Tillandsia, then keep several essential things in mind.
Glass globes will limit the amount of air circulation that your Tillandsia receives. This limit doesn’t mean that Tillandsias can’t survive and thrive in glass globes; it simply means that you must choose the right-sized one for your plant.
Make sure that the globe is large enough to allow the leaves and bottom of the plant to get adequate circulation. Also, pay special attention to ensure that the airplant dries out entirely after soaking before returning it to its glass globe.
Moisture inside this environment won’t evaporate as quickly, meaning that over-misting or leaving your airplant wet inside its glass globe will likely lead to rot.
Likewise, carefully choose the area that you will hang the glass globe. Since glass will only amplify the light that the plant receives, make sure to select a suitably shaded spot that won’t cause the glass to overheat or burn Tillandsia’s leaves with too much direct light.
In a glass globe, you can add items at the bottom for your airplant to grow on or to simply complement it. Again, choose objects that won’t cover the plant, that will let air circulate properly, and that won’t leach chemicals or hard minerals into the plant’s environment.
If glass globes aren’t for you, then Tillandsias can also be mounted in various attractive ways for display around your home. Here’s what to know about mounting and how to make sure your Tillandsia is happy in this environment.
If you go to your local houseplant shop or nursery, you’re likely to see plants mounted in shells to look like octopus tentacles, on wood planks, and in a variety of other ways. Some of these mounting methods make properly watering and drying a Tillandsia impossible. They can also include mounting materials, like glue, that hinder air circulation.
Check for these red flags before purchasing a pre-mounted airplant. In the best-case scenario, mounting a Tillandsia yourself will ensure that the plant can still grow and thrive.
Tips for Mounting at Home
When using materials like wood, choose some that haven’t been pre-treated with chemicals or have any hard metals or stains that could leach into your plant. Use attachment materials like fishing lines, wires, or twist ties to attach to the plant without damaging it.
You can still use attachment methods that employ glue or even staples (just don’t staple the plant’s leaves), as long as you do it correctly with proper soaking, drying, and air circulation in mind. However, always avoid superglue and copper materials, as these will damage your plant.
Just because there’s no soil in the equation doesn’t mean that these plants won’t benefit from properly applied fertilizer. Of course, your run-of-the-mill houseplant or outdoor fertilizer won’t cut it here.
Most fertilizers contain chemicals that can be beneficial for some plants but harmful, harsh, and burning for others with more delicate roots. Because Tillandsia originates from the same family as Bromeliads, select a Bromeliad fertilizer (these will feature a 17-8-22 ratio).
Applying this twice a month during your Tillandsia’s soak can help it grow faster and allow it to reproduce and bloom as well.
Tillandsias can live for quite a while. While they may not live as long as spider plants, they can live for several years. Throughout the life of your Tillandsia, you’re likely to have to do a bit of maintenance to keep it looking and feeling its best. However, Tillandsias have a reputation for being low-maintenance if placed in the right environment.
The central maintenance required will be the removal of brown or dead leaves. Tillandsia will naturally shed leaves as it grows, just like any other plant. So don’t panic if you see a few withering, brown leaves near the base of the plant as it pushes out new growth.
Simply remove these: give a gentle tug, and if the leaf is dead, it will come away quickly. If it puts up resistance, leave it and try again in a few days. Never pull the leaves off forcefully.
Pest and Diseases
In the world of houseplants, many pests and diseases arise from the quality and condition of the soil. Although most plants don’t have any dirt to worry about, they are still susceptible to some ailments. Many ailments can come from unideal environmental conditions.
Mealybugs and scale are the most common pests that can prey on these plants. Both will attack the leaves of the airplant.
Mealybugs will appear as a cotton-textured coating on the leaves, and the pests will suck nutrients from the leaves, resulting in withered or unhealthy-looking leaves.
On the other hand, scale is most notable on the bottom sides of the leaves and appears as hard bumps that resemble this pest’s namesake: scales. These can be harder to detect. You may not notice it until the infestation becomes rampant. Make sure to examine your Tillandsia to rule out pests regularly.
If you notice any pests on your Tillandsia, then quarantine the plant and treat it with an anti-pest spray. Neem spray and soapy water are two good natural alternatives to pesticides that you can use safely indoors.
Other than pests, the main ailments that can harm Tillandsia have to do with overly moist conditions. Mold, rot, and fungus can multiply in warm and humid areas. Be on the lookout for sources of these growths.
Controlling Tillandsia’s environment for all the needs discussed above will help cut down on the chances of being host to any of these unwanted and harmful guests. Ensuring the plant properly dries out after soaking, has proper air circulation, and isn’t in any sort of standing water will help keep these issues at bay.
Tillandsia Life Cycle
A Tillandsia’s natural growth cycle will include one process of blooming, during which it will also produce pups or small offshoots of new airplants. Of course, there are many different varieties of Tillandsia, and each can create another type and color of the bloom.
Blooming is the beginning of this plant’s reproduction cycle. In the wild, Tillandsia is pollinated by moths, bats, and even hummingbirds. Then, the blooms will turn to seed and fall to grow new plants. However, without pollinators in a domestic environment, Tillandsia plants reproduce differently.
These plants will generally follow the same life cycle as houseplants: around the same time as blooming, the plant will produce between two to eight pups. Blooming can last for months on end or for just a few days, depending on the variety. But once the plant is done blooming, the mother plant will dry up and die.
But don’t worry! Although each Tillandsia will only go through one blooming cycle in its life, each new pup is a new plant that will bloom as well. Once your mother plant produces pups, you have several options for propagation.
Once you see full-grown pups (around one-third to half the size of the mother plant) and see that the mother plant is withering, you can choose to propagate the pups or allow them to clump.
If you choose propagation, you can simply gently twist the pup from the mother plant’s base. If this doesn’t work, you can also use a knife and make a clean downward slice right at the bottom of the pup.
However, you can also choose to let the pups clump, forming a larger plant. In this scenario, simply make sure to remove the mother plant once it’s entirely spent. Do this by pulling off withered and dry leaves. You can tell for sure that the leaves are dead when they don’t require much effort to pull off. They will peel away on their own with a gentle tug.
In either instance, make sure not to remove the mother plant until you are sure it is spent. Doing so can not only harm the pups if they’re not yet fully grown but can also prevent the growth of more pups that the mother plant might put out.
Remember how there are more than 600 different types of Tillandsia? It can be challenging to tell them apart, especially when it comes to domestic varieties readily available for purchase at nurseries and houseplant suppliers.
However, some are easily recognizable for their unique foliage colors, bloom colors, and growing styles. Additionally, some are more suitable to shadier environments than others.
This type is the typical Tillandsia that most people first think of but is actually very unique from most other varieties: it grows to a much larger size, and its leaves curl as it grows, giving it a round and dimensional shape.
It’s an awe-inspiring variety and is one of the most common to see in stores. It’s also more tolerant of bright conditions and doesn’t need as much water as other Tillandsia varieties.
If you want to go down the rabbit hole with airplants, then the ionantha variety is the perfect place to start. It has sub-varieties with tons of unique characteristics. But as a whole, this variety family features spiky shapes of all sizes and is excellent for beginners.
Certain types offer brightly colored leaves and blooms, such as the Fuego and Guatemala varieties.
Anything but basic, this airplant does appear somewhat standard at first brush: it has multiple thin, bright green leaves and can adapt to a wide variety of environments. Its blooms, however, are extraordinary and dimensions and can resemble that of Bromeliads in many colors and textures.
The name of this one says it all. It’s a small, deep green variety with a bulbous-looking bottom and wavy, tentacle-like leaves that make it look almost more alien than a plant.
These, along with Tillandsia stricta, are favorites for use in terrariums or in a multiple-airplant garden. This way, different varieties can be grown side-by-side to complement each other.
Tillandsia Caput Medusae
This variety gets its name from the Greek mythology of Medusa, with wavy, fuzzy leaves that branch out at different angles. This unique-looking variety is also more light tolerant and can survive with less water due to differences in their trichomes.
Frequently Asked Questions
Even though airplants are simple to care for and maintain, their drastically different needs and preferences can cause some confusion. Here are some commonly asked questions about caring for and keeping Tillandsia varieties.
Can airplants be planted in soil?
Nope! Not even a little bit. While most plants need the soil for their roots to absorb nutrients, Tillandsia doesn’t have typical roots. Planting them in the ground would suffocate the plant and cut off the air circulation it needs to survive.
Are airplants toxic to animals?
Nope! Don’t worry if your pet tastes your airplant, as it’s nontoxic.
Do airplants clean the air?
Some studies have shown that Tillandsia has air-cleaning qualities, albeit not in staggering amounts.
How often should airplants be watered?
How often you water an airplant will depend on your home’s unique environment. Airplants that get more heat and sunlight will naturally need more water, whether through misting or soaking. In a cooler and shadier environment, they may need less.
Your plant’s leaves will tell you if it’s thirsty. Shriveled, dull-looking, and wrinkled Tillandsia leaves indicate that the plant needs more consistent watering.
If you’re looking to diversify your houseplant collection with a unique, low-maintenance, other-worldly looking plant that offers flexibility and will get conversations going, then take a look at some Tillandsia varieties near you.
Although they require special consideration and different methods of care, you’ll find that, once you get into the swing of it, airplants aren’t difficult to grow. They can offer lots of satisfaction through the rewarding cycle of blooming and propagation.
So regardless of your experience and skill level with houseplants, Tillandsias can be a great beginner’s plant. They can provide eye-catching, beautiful green decor year-round.