How to Take Care of Air Plants

Air plants are exotic plants that are beautiful and unique. How can you help it thrive?

If you’re looking for a straightforward plant to care for but want something that looks unique and interesting, you should consider an air plant. Also known as Tillandsia, air plants are some of the easiest houseplants to grow. These plants don’t need soil to thrive, but they still need the right amount of water, sunlight, and nutrients.

Do Air Plants Need Soil?

Air plants are classified as epiphytic plants, or epiphytes, meaning they don’t grow with their roots in the soil, but instead, attach themselves to another tree, object, or host. They don’t steal nutrients from the host or absorb nutrients through their roots. Their roots are solely used to attach themselves to wherever they are growing. 

These perennial plants get their needed nutrients from the air, dust, and rain and will live happily for many years if you care for them properly. They will even produce pups or offsets when healthy and thriving.

An air plant growing on the trunk of a tree

Choosing a Good Container

You can use regular pots to grow air plants, but they are great candidates for many other planters since they don’t need soil for their roots. People often grow them in vases, bowls, or hanging terrariums with sand, moss, and rock at the vessel’s bottom. Avoid containers that are taller and narrow.

Air plants also grow well in terrariums. If you choose to grow Tillandsia in containers, you want to keep them away from the side walls where condensation can collect, and whatever base you use in the terrarium drains quickly, so the plant’s roots stay dry.

A very decorative stainless and spiral air planters in the garden

How Much Sunlight Do They Require?

Like most of the other commonly grown houseplant species, Tillandsia like lots of bright but indirect sunlight. This preference comes from growing under the canopy of tropical trees. Your plant will do best with at least 6 hours of diffused light daily, a few feet away from a window. Keep it out of bright, direct sunlight. 

How Often Do I Need to Water an Air Plant?

The trickiest part of caring for air plants is getting them the right amount of water. The first rule of growing one is it cannot live on air alone. The second rule is if you give them too much water, they’ll die. So it’s essential to water them correctly. Skip misting them daily—they need more water—and dunk them in water instead. 

Plan on watering your air plant at least once a week or every ten days. If you live in the desert or a dry climate, you may need to water every five to ten days.

When watering, place your plant face down in a container of water, letting it soak for ten to twenty minutes. Remember that the roots don’t take in water. Once you remove it from the water, gently shake any excess off the base of the plant and let them dry before putting them back in its container. You can also dunk the plant several times and shake off any excess. 

A well-water air plant will display its leaves in an open pattern. A dry plant will curl its leaves and look “closed up.” 

Avoid submerging any flower buds or open flowers as the water may cause the flower to rot and potentially kill the entire plant. 

Soaking some air plant buds in water

Does the Type of Water Matter?

Yes, the type of water matters significantly. Air plants pull most of their nutrients from their water source, so it’s critical it doesn’t contain high levels of unhealthy chemicals or nutrients. When possible, try to use aquarium or rainwater, but bottled water and spring water are okay to use as well. 

Always avoid distilled water or water treated through a home water softener. If you opt to use tap water, fill a container and let it stand for several hours to allow any chemicals to dissipate before watering your plants.

How Does Your Environment Affect Your Watering Schedule?

Those watering guidelines are just that, a recommendation. You must consider your environment when trying to determine the watering frequency. If you live in a really humid climate, you may need to water your plant less often. But if you live in an arid, hot climate, you’ll need to water more frequently and maybe mist your plant periodically. 

A person spraying some water on an air plant

Do I Need to Fertilize My Plant?

This question often gets mixed answers. Air plants need considerably fewer nutrients than terrestrial plants that grow in soil but still need some nutrients to survive. Most of what they need they pull from the air and dust particles, but a small dose of fertilizer will help them thrive and produce blooms or pups. 

When plants are actively growing during the spring and summer, add water-soluble fertilizer formulated for epiphytes or air plants to the water you dunk your plants in once a month. Low-nitrogen formulations are best because they encourage blooms and offset production instead of foliage growth. Also, look for fertilizers without urea because air plants cannot use urea-nitrogen. Urea needs soil bacteria to convert it to a form plants can use, so Tillandsia cannot process this kind of nitrogen.

The Importance of Adequate Air Circulation

As air plants depend highly on the atmosphere for nutrients, they need good, clean air to survive and be healthy. Plants also need enough air circulation to keep moisture and condensation from settling on the leaves. Because of this, it’s recommended not to grow them in completely enclosed terrariums because plants stay too moist. 

Keep in mind, though, that as air circulation (and air temperature) increases, plants may dry out more quickly and you may need to water them more often.

An air plant in a decorative glass office vase
Carley Miller
Carley Miller is a horticultural expert at Bustling Nest. She previously owned a landscaping business for 25 years and worked at a local garden center for 10 years.
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