5 Things You Need to Know about Air Plants

6 min read

You may have noticed these delicate-looking air plants being displayed across walls or hanging from ceilings without any soil or water. How do they survive in the air without any soil and water? The truth is they are hardier than they look! Besides sprucing up your home decor, they also help to purify the air in your house. What’s even better – they require minimal maintenance! So for those of you who claim you have no green fingers, this is the plant for you. But first, here are 5 things you need to know about air plants to make sure they have a long and happy life with you.

1. Air plants can’t survive on just air.

Tillandsia, commonly nicknamed as ‘air plants’, need water too. Sure, they may not need as much watering like other plants, but they still require moisture. As their nickname suggests, they can obtain moisture and nutrients through the air thanks to the tiny structures present on their leaves called trichomes. These trichomes may look like fine hairs or scales to the naked eye, but a closer look would reveal that they look more like little cups that help to take in water.

Typical air plant with white fuzzy “stuff” on the surface (left); trichomes viewed under a microscope (right).
Photographs by: Lim Huan

Trichomes are made up of both living and dead cells. When trichomes are dry, the dead cells resemble scale-like wings pointing slightly upwards. In contact with water, these swell up like a sponge and become clear as they stretch out flat along the surface of the leaf. Water and dissolved nutrients are trapped between the trichome and leaf, facilitating the absorption of water into the living cells of the leaves and transporting it to the rest of the air plant.

Now that you know how air plants get their water and nutrients, how do you actually ‘water’ them? You can water your air plants by misting thrice a week and soaking the leaves weekly for 30 minutes. After soaking, shake off excess water and allow them to dry entirely with good air circulation. Otherwise, they will rot, and you do not want that. You may use rainwater or tap water that has been left overnight. But never give them distilled water; they do not appreciate it as we do.

*Note: Do not soak your air plants when they are blooming, the flower will dissolve!

Water your air plants regularly!

Some of you may wonder, ‘but not all air plants are the same.’ Yes, you are right! Different air plants have different needs and preferences. So how do you know what is best for your air plant? The secret lies in the size and quantity of trichomes. Air plants with an abundance of trichomes, usually whiter and fuzzier in appearance, grows well in bright and dry conditions. These air plants prefer mists to soaks. In other words, less water and bright light recommended! For smoother and greener air plants that are usually found in wet and humid conditions, more water and less light would be preferred.

2. Air plants need sunlight too!

As a general rule of thumb, air plants require several hours of bright indirect light – be it sunlight or artificial light (from fluorescent bulbs). Most air plants have trichomes on their leaves that help to reflect intense light and harmful radiation from the sun. However, these little beauties should not be placed in an enclosed space under direct sunlight for prolonged periods as it could be very drying for them. They don’t appreciate being trapped in a greenhouse oven; they enjoy some shade and breeze as well.

3. Unlike other plants, air plants do not grow in soil.

Air plants are the rebels of plants – they do not absorb water and nutrients from the soil through their roots like most plants do. Instead, air plants use their roots to anchor themselves on tree branches, rocks or basically anything they can grab on to.

Air plant dangling from a tree.
Photography by: Lawrence Yeap

These plants are epiphytes in nature, which means that they grow on other plants or objects merely for physical support without relying on their hosts for survival. However, not all objects are suitable for the attachment of air plants – copper materials may rust and kill your air plants, as well as the two commonly found toxins in fertilisers, boron and zinc. Be sure to keep these in mind when searching for a perfect home for your air plants!

4. Not too cold and not too hot; air plants love warm temperatures!

Air plants are native to the Southern US, Mexico, Central and South America, where they are widely distributed across the tropical and subtropical states. These areas have a warm climate with high humidity and precipitation. For these air plants to be happy, mimic their natural environment with warm temperatures ranging from 10°C to 32°C. Temperature fluctuations, simulating nightfall, allow air plants to thrive and feel at home.

5. Air plants bloom once in a lifetime and produces gorgeous bright flowers.

Flowering is the peak of the air plant life cycle, and also marks the beginning of the plant’s old age. Depending on species, these little air plant blossoms may last from a few days to several months. When air plants start to flower, the uppermost leaves turn bright red and produce delicate tube-like flowers with bright violet petals that are absolutely bloom-tiful! How to water air plants in bloom? Instead of submerging them entirely in water, you may mist them or rinse them under gently flowing water without wetting the delicate flower. More water may be needed than usual to keep a blooming plant happy and healthy as it uses all of its energy on the blooms, and eventually the pups.

Aren’t these bloom-tiful?
Photographs by: Brandon Lee

Air plants reproduce by yielding two to eight ‘pups’ (also known as offsets or babies) before, during or after flowering to continue the life cycle. These ‘pups’ or baby air plants start out very small but eventually grow till they are about the same size as their mother. Once they are about half the size of the mother plant, propagate them by carefully plucking the ‘pups’ off and place them in a new home!

Now that you know all you need to know about air plants, adopt one of these captivating plants and give it a new loving home! But remember, low maintenance doesn’t mean no maintenance!

Written by Lim Huan
Illustration by Chua Jia Qi