Air Plants

Prepared by Barbara H. Smith, HGIC Horticulture Extension Agent, Clemson University, 02/17.

HGIC 1515

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Air plants (Tillandsia spp.) are epiphytes (plants that grow harmlessly upon other plants) belonging to the bromeliad family. They are gaining popularity as houseplants, as they are unusual looking and require little care. Bromeliads are some of the best all-around houseplants for removing pollution from the air. Closely related to our native Spanish “moss”, there are over 500 species available, providing a wide choice of leaf colors, textures, and flowers. They are native in zones 9 or higher in Central and South America, the Southern US, and the West Indies. In many areas, the native populations are endangered due to over collection; therefore, only purchase nursery-propagated plants.

Air plants (Tilllandsia spp.) are unusual looking and require little care.
Air plants (Tilllandsia spp.) are unusual looking and require little care.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2017 HGIC, Clemson University

Characteristics

Air plants use other plants or structures to support them. They are not parasites and do not damage the supporting plant. They use their roots systems only to attach to the support structure. Air plants get their common name from the fact that they absorb all of their nutrients and moisture from the atmosphere. Small scales on the thin, stiff leaves enable the plant to absorb the necessary water and nutrients.

Small scales on the leaves enable the plant to absorb water and nutrients from the air.
Small scales on the leaves enable the plant to absorb water and nutrients from the air.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2017 HGIC, Clemson University

Small flowers, usually less than two inches, will form in late winter and mid-summer. After the mature plant flowers, it will die, but new plants, called “pups” will develop from the base of the parent plant.

Planting & Care

Air plants require proper light, air circulation, and water. They need bright, filtered light, usually on an eastern, southern, or western exposure. Do not place them in direct sunlight.

Water Tillandsia once a week by either misting well or submerging the plant in water for 20-30 minutes. Excess water can collect between the leaves around the center of the plant, so gently shaking them will remove moisture. It is important to turn the plant upside down to allow the excess water to drain and dry out to prevent it from rotting. If the plant is not receiving enough water, then the leaves will curl or roll, the foliage will turn a dull color, and the tips will turn brown.

Good air circulation is also an important factor in successfully growing air plants. This helps the plant dry between watering and will help prevent disease.

Fertilization is not necessary, but plants will be more vigorous when fertilized with a light application. Fertilize once a month, if desired, and use a liquid fertilizer made especially for bromeliads. Dilute the suggested dosage to one-fourth the recommended rate and add to the normal watering schedule. Again, be sure to let the plant drain well.

A glass globe is an interesting way to display an air plant.
A glass globe is an interesting way to display an air plant.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2017 HGIC, Clemson University

How to Display

Because air plants can grow and anchor themselves to surfaces other than soil, they can be grown on or in a wide selection of surfaces. They can be attached to bark, shells, rocks, or placed in a shallow dish. Glass globes or creative planting stands are also available for displaying Tillandsia collections. They also may be hung on fishing line or thin wire from the ceiling or a rod to create an interesting display. Whatever display method is chosen, be sure the material does not hold water.

Air plants may displayed in an artistic plant stand.
Air plants may displayed in an artistic plant stand.
Barbara H. Smith, ©2017 HGIC, Clemson University

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