Looking to add a unique house plant to your collection? Try an air plant! Air plants are known for being low-maintenance and fun to display around your home since they do not require soil to grow. While the term “air plant” is most commonly associated with plants in the Tillandsia genus, there are actually hundreds of different types of air plants that span multiple different plant families. Learn how to keep these tropical plants happy indoors.
What is an Air Plant?
The term “air plant” is used to refer to plants that do not require soil in order to survive, but instead grow on top of other plants, such as trees, without being parasitic. Rather than getting their nutrients from the soil, air plants derive their nutrients from the air, water, and debris around them. The term “air plant” is synonymous with the Greek term “epiphyte,” which is literally translated to “on top of plant” (epi = on top of; phyte = plant).
Air Plant Care
There are a few general rules when it comes to care that can be followed for any air plant.
Since air plants are commonly found growing on trees and other large plants below the forest canopy, they are accustomed to receiving bright to medium indirect light. Avoid prolonged exposure to direct sunlight which can easily burn their delicate leaves.
Air plants require regular watering in order to thrive indoors. However, since these plants grow without soil, watering air plants looks a little bit different than watering your other houseplants. Most air plants can be successfully watered using a soaking method, where the plant is left to soak in a bowl of distilled water for 20 to 40 minutes every 1 to 2 weeks. However, some air plants prefer regular misting, or a quick dunk versus a longer soak. Researching the specific type of air plant that you have will help to determine which watering method is best.
Temperature and Humidity
One of the most important parts of caring for air plants properly indoors is ensuring that they receive enough moisture and humidity. Air plants prefer warm, humid conditions to ensure that they do not dry out. Regular household temperatures are fine for air plants, just ensure that they are not exposed to any cold drafts or temperatures in the winter.
When it comes to humidity, avoid placing your air plants near heating/cooling vents in your home, or in rooms with particularly dry conditions. Your plant will thrive with a humidifier placed nearby, or you can grow them in notoriously humid rooms in your home such as the bathroom, laundry room, or kitchen.
Do Air Plants Need Soil?
The defining quality of air plants, or epiphytes, is that they do not require soil in order to survive. However, some air plants such as staghorn ferns, birds nest ferns, some species of moss, and some species of philodendron (among others) can adapt to grow in soil, although they require extremely arid, well-draining mixes in order to survive.
Displaying Your Air Plant
Since these plants do not require soil, there are lots of fun and creative ways to display your air plant around your home. They can be mounted on another medium such as a piece of driftwood, a rock, or a wood board; displayed in a terrarium; hung from the ceiling or a curtain rod; or set inside a dedicated air plant holder or planter. As long as you can move the plant to water it, feel free to get creative when it comes to displaying your air plant.
Types of Air Plants
There are hundreds, if not thousands of plants that can be classified as air plants, or epiphytes, from multiple different plant families. The following are some of the most popular and well-known types of air plants.
Bromeliads Family (Bromeliaceae)
The bromeliad family (Bromeliaceae) is the largest and most diverse family of air plants, and also the most recognizable. While not all plants in this family are epiphytic, a large number of them have adapted to epiphytic conditions over time. This family includes the famous tillandsia genus, along with the guzmania genus, among others. Epiphytic bromeliads primarily absorb water and nutrients through the trichomes on their leaves, with their roots being used mainly for support.
Orchid Family (Orchidaceae)
The orchid family also contains a large number of epiphytic plants, including the most common and well-known genus in the family—the phalaenopsis orchids. Epiphytic species in the orchid family use their roots for support and for absorbing water and nutrients from their surrounding environment.
Not all ferns are epiphytic, however, certain ferns can be grown either terrestrially (in soil) or epiphytically (soilless). These include staghorn ferns (Platycerium bifurcatum) and birds nest ferns (Asplenium nidus), among others.
No, we don’t mean desert cacti. Epiphytic cacti are plants in the cactus family (Cactaceae) that are native to the tropical rainforests of Central and South America. This includes popular species such as the Christmas cactus, Thanksgiving cactus, Easter cactus, rhipsalis, fishbone cactus, and more.
Propagating Air Plants
Since the term “air plant” covers a wide variety of plants, there are a few ways that air plants are commonly propagated. Most of the time, epiphytic plants propagate most readily through division of pups from the "mother plant," however some species, such as the tropical cacti, can also be propagated by stem cuttings. Ensure that you research the best way to propagate the specific type of air plant that you have before attempting either of the following two methods.
How to Propagate Air Plants by Division
- Air plants that are healthy and established will begin to grow pups, or offshoots, over time. These can be separated and established as independent plants.
- Grab the base of the plants and gently wiggle the pup from the mother plant to separate them. If they are not easy to pull apart, you can use a sharp knife or pair of scissors to separate them.
- Once separated, begin caring for your new baby plant like you would for the mother plant - it’s as easy as that!
How to Propagate Air Plants by Stem Cuttings
- Using a pair of sharp scissors or pruning shears, take stem cuttings that are around 4 to 5 inches long.
- Set the cuttings aside in a cool, dry location for at least 24 hours to allow the cut edge to callous over.
- Fill a small glass or vase with distilled or filtered water and place the bottom of the cutting in the water.
- Set the cuttings in a location that receives bright, indirect light and refresh the water once a week. After a few weeks you should begin to notice new roots forming below the water!
Common Problems With Air Plants
The most common problems encountered when growing air plants indoors are usually related to improper watering or humidity conditions. Identifying the issue early is key to saving your plant before it’s too late!
If your air plant’s leaves have brown, crispy tips, this is an indication that your plant is not receiving enough moisture. As a first step, try increasing the humidity around the plant before you increase your watering schedule. This can be done by placing a small humidifier nearby, or moving your plant to a more humid room in your home. If the problem persists on any new growth after you make this change, try increasing the frequency of your watering slightly to prevent your plant from drying out too much.
On the other hand; brown, mushy stems are an indication that your air plant has been overwatered. Unfortunately, it is usually hard to save an air plant that has been overwatered unless you catch it early enough. Remove the mushy stems from the plant and skip at least one watering to help dry the plant out a bit. Once you resume watering, cut back slightly from your previous watering schedule.
Do you need to water an air plant?
Yes! Contrary to their name, air plants cannot survive on just air, and they do need to be watered regularly. In fact, proper watering is one of the most important parts of caring for an air plant properly indoors.
How fast do air plants grow?
Generally, air plants are known for being slow-growers, although with so many different types of plants classified as “air plants” there are some variations in growth depending on the type of plant that you have. For example, air plants such as tillandsia and orchids are relatively slow-growing, while the tropical cacti and ferns are air plants that tend to grow a little bit faster.
Are air plants easy to care for?
Overall, air plants are fairly low-maintenance houseplants that are easy to keep happy indoors. The hardest part about their care is getting used to their unique needs compared to the non-epiphytic houseplants that you may be used to.