Air Plants

Nancy Helms, UM Extension Master Gardener in Anoka County, March 10, 2015

Have a black thumb? You might want to consider an air plant. I know the first time I saw one I had to take a second look. I was certain it was artificial; there was no soil. It looked like an alien life form in a glass bubble. I soon learned that even though they have an ethereal, fairy like appearance, they are alive.

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The botanical name for these bromeliads is Tillandsia (tuh–LAND-zee-uh); there are more than 650 varieties. Air plants are easy to grow because they absorb all of the water and nutrients they need through their specialized leaves. They use their roots only for attaching themselves to a surface. While they are native to rain forests, deserts and swamps, they are becoming easier to find in plant shops and garden centers as their popularity grows. 

Air plants are warm-weather lovers that can thrive on neglect.  They grow differently than most house plants. They are really very hardy, and require much less attention than other house plants. But they can’t live on air alone. 

Lighting is the key. Give them as much bright, filtered light as possible. Although they love warm weather, they need protection from full sun. An east-facing window with a few hours of direct sun is good. A west-facing window works as long as the direct sun hits late in the day when it is less intense. If growing in globes, do not place your globes directly in front of a window where they get direct sun as the glass will intensify the sunlight and the heat. Indirect light is best; some will even grow in low to moderate light in globes.

They prefer night temperatures 10-15 degrees cooler than daytime. Most varieties will not survive at temperatures below 45 degrees. Protect them from frost by avoiding a drafty window that ices up in the winter.

Constant air circulation is paramount to keep your plant happy. If the air in your home is not too dry, these plants can survive with misting once or twice a week and the occasional bath.  Never use softened or distilled water. Filtered water that has sat long enough for the chlorine to dissipate is a good choice, as is rain water and pond water. Submerge the plant for 2-3 hours about every two weeks. Remove from bath, gently shake, turn them upside down and allow them to air dry for 1-3 hours. 

If placing in a globe or dish, be sure to empty out any water, as they will not thrive in standing water. It is better to water in the morning rather than at night. Air plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air at night instead of the day time. If the plant is wet, it does not breathe.  Unless it can dry quickly at night, plan on morning baths.

Have some fun; use them as a design element in your home décor. These little plants are a good solution when soil is not an option and space is limited.