The magical, myth-plagued air plant

The magical, myth-plagued air plant

I bought my first air plant about seven years ago. The idea of something that lived on air and water seemed magical, plus, it came in a pretty hand-blown glass container.

Soak it once a week, the vendor said. They’re super easy plants. So I did, religiously… for a while. The tillandsia went with me when I moved to Florida, where I hung it on our incredibly humid porch and hoped it would fend for itself. When I moved again two years later, the tiny plant remained on the porch, forgotten and long dead.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about tillandsia (even though I killed a few more along the way), and I’ve gotten a lot better at taking care of them.

Air plants might not be as mysterious to me now, but I still think they’re pretty magical. I’m definitely not alone—tillandsia are some of the most popular items in our store. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of misinformation when it comes to air plants, making it very confusing for someone just getting started.

And, just to make it even more confusing, air plants are native to tropical regions ranging from shaded, humid under-canopies to exposed rock faces in arid zones. This means different types of air plants have wildly different light and water requirements; what works for one variety may quickly lead to rot in another. Hopefully, this article will shed some light on many of the common misconceptions around air plants.

Myth 1: It doesn’t need anything but air. Nope. Growing things need water, light and nutrients, and air plants are no exception. In the wild, tillandsia get nutrients from minerals in rain water and organic matter (soil, dust) that falls on their leaves particularly in tropical climates. Air plants are well adapted to low-nutrient conditions, but even so, indoor tillandsia do best when fertilized once or twice a month. Make sure any fertilizer you use is specifically for foliar application on bromeliads—high amounts of nutrients in other plant fertilizers will quickly kill your air plant.

Fun fact: Did you know tillandsia are related to pineapples? They both belong to the bromeliad family.

Myth 2: Tillandsia don’t photosynthesize/they need tons of light. Again, no—all tillandsia photosynthesize, but the amount of light they need depends on their native habitats. As a general rule, the more trichomes (fuzzy little leaf hairs) on an air plant, the higher amounts of light a plant will tolerate. Tillandsia tectorum is a popular example of an air plant with lots of trichomes. Unsurprisingly, they’re native to Peru and Ecuador, where they grow on rocks and at the tops of trees, rather than nestled under the canopy like some varieties. The trichomes are an adaptation to reflect light and reduce water loss, allowing them to thrive in high light environments.

Myth 3: If it’s green, it’s alive. Sadly, also not true. Many varieties of tillandsia keep most or all of their color long after they’ve croaked. This is especially problematic as increasing numbers of retailers are jumping on the air plant trend. I’ve seen them at Target, grocery and hardware stores, clothing and furniture boutiques, and of course, on Amazon. So how do you make sure you’re buying a living plant, you might ask?

A good start is to buy plants from plant people. I mean, I might be a little biased, but we generally know more and care about your success. We like (ok, love and obsess over) plants, we take care of a lot of them, and we have a wealth of practical knowledge. If plantophiles are few and far between where you live (it does happen, believe it or not), you still have a few options.

You can tell a lot about an air plant just by picking it up. Do the leaves feel springy, or does it feel crunchy to the touch? A well-hydrated plant will have pliable leaves in brighter, richer hues of green. Also, give the base of the plant a squeeze—a healthy tillandsia has a firm, distinct core. Mushy centers mean rot, and hollow centers indicate severe under-watering (and they don’t come back from either). A gentle tug on the topmost leaves will also tell you a lot. If the plant rips in half with with gentle touch, its a gonner. Brown edges also indicate dehydration, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the plant won’t live.

Myth 4: Air plants have roots. No, not really… Those little brown things on the bottom of your tillandsia might look like roots, but they don’t bring in any nutrients. Air plants are epiphytes, which means they live on top of other plants without taking any nutrients from them (parasites, on the other hand, do eat their hosts). An air plant’s little appendages are used for gripping tree branches and rocks, and nutrients are absorbed through stoma, the pore-like openings on their leaves.

Myth 5: They should be soaked for hours/They should be soaked once a month (or once every two or three weeks, or misted once a week, etc.) So, I’ll be honest—plant people have lots of opinions, and they don’t always agree, either. This is possibly the hardest part of tillandsia care, and consequently, the main cause of untimely plant demise. The formula we generally give our customers is:

  • Soak your plant once a week for 10-15 minutes

  • Shake all excess water from leaves

  • Fertilize twice a month AFTER watering

  • Dry upside down until completely dry

  • Mist between soakings as needed (you may want to mist every few days if you have a hot or dry environment, or keep your plant in medium to high light)

Of course, there are always exceptions, so you should learn where your particular variety comes from, and whether it lives in high or highly filtered light. As a rule, the more light your air plant gets, the more water it wants. However, the drying stage is crucial for all varieties. Your plant should not remain damp for extended periods. Some varieties, particularly tectorum and xerographica, may have better outcomes if misted every few days instead of soaking.

If you lose a few along the way, don’t get discouraged! Practice makes perfect, even when it comes to plants. You may also consider starting with a larger more established plant – its larger size has more stored energy which will be more likely to stay with you during your learning curve.

We hope that clearing up these myths should help you avoid the most common pitfalls and give you a shot at keeping thriving, happy tillandsia. Please feel free to get in touch if you have questions about your tillandsia care!


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