How To Grow And Care For Air Plants

Create a miniature winter garden with ethereal air plants—no soil required!

Take It Easy with Air Plants
Create a miniature winter garden with ethereal air plants—no soil required!. Photo: Laurey W. Glenn

In the wild, air plants (Tillandsia spp.) grow on trees and rocks, absorbing moisture through their leaves rather than the soil. The romantic Spanish moss that hangs from the branches of live oaks in the Coastal South is actually an air plant. Because they need no soil, these textural beauties are great for easy-care terrariums dressed up with gravel, shells, or pebbles. You can also mount air plants on cork bark or driftwood, arrange them in a tabletop display for your patio, or hang plants in clear glass globes. (For a great selection of terrarium supplies, visit Foliage can be fine-textured or thick and comes in greens, silvers, pinks, and reds. Leaves often blush before small flowers appear. These tropical and subtropical epiphytes love warmth, air, and regular moisture; read on for how to care for these easy plants.

Plant Attributes
Common Name Air plant, sky plant
Botanical Name Tillandsia spp.
Family Bromeliaceae
Plant Type Epiphyte, perennial
Sun Exposure Partial, dappled, shade
Flower Color Blue, green, white, red, pink, yellow
Hardiness Zones Species dependent
Native Area North America, Central America, South America

Air Plant Care

Most air plants like bright, indirect light or dappled sunlight. In a frost-free area, they can survive outdoors year-round, but most prefer to be indoors during cold or extremely hot weather. There are two types of air plants: xeric plants that originate from desert climates, and mesic plants that come from the tropics. Xeric air plants are usually bluish, silver, or gray-green in color, and sometimes have hairy leaves. Mesic air plants have glossy or waxy leaves. We'll tell you the differences in how to care for them.


The safest bet is to place your air plant in indirect light near a window or outdoors in bright shade. Give your plant as much light as possible without letting direct sunlight hit the leaves and dry them out. Many air plants also will be happy with a bit of dappled sunlight filtered through a tree canopy. A few of the xeric air plants, like the adorably fuzzy T. tectorum, can handle a bit more direct sunlight. But unless you have been provided with growing information that instructs otherwise, it's best to stick with indirect light.


Soak air plants in water for 30 minutes once a week and shake off any excess. Set them out to dry for a couple of hours before placing them back in their usual home. Put them upside down or on their sides while drying. If leaves begin to wrinkle in between waterings, mist them with a spray bottle. Frequent misting is especially appreciated by glossy, mesic air plants.

Air plants love being doused in rainwater or fresh water, but unfiltered city water works fine. Just don't use distilled water or tap water treated with water softener, which contains salts that will dry out your plants.

Temperature And Humidity

Not surprisingly, xeric air plants do well growing outdoors in dry climates and mesic air plants do well in humid ones. That doesn't mean you can't grow one or the other, but you may need to water mesic plants more frequently or move a xeric plant to a drier spot where it won't get soaked. If you live in the desert, even a xeric plant may appreciate misting.


Air plants don't require fertilizing, especially if they are watered with rainwater or outdoor freshwater. If that's not the case, you can fertilize once a month in the spring and summer. Use a spray fertilizer that is formulated for bromeliads and air plants.

Some species are hardy to Zone 9, which means they can survive winter temperatures in the 20s (Spanish moss will even survive in Zone 8). But most air plants prefer mild weather that is between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Bring your air plant indoors if the temperature will drop below 50.

Types Of Air Plants

Many of the air plants sold at your garden center and or through specialty nurseries can fit in the palm of your hand, while others will grow to a foot or longer. Here are some of the most popular air plants sold in stores:

  • T. aeranthos: The "carnation of the air" is admired for its bright fuschia and purple flowers. The thick leaves spike aggressively outward. This plant will grow 9-12 inches tall and wide.
  • T. argentea: Needly, mint green foliage can grow quite wild or develop a bushy, domed shape that makes it especially pretty in a globe. Grows to 10 inches wide.
  • T. caput-medusae: The snaky leaves of this slender plant can reach 6-16 inches tall. Perfect for displaying in narrow spaces.
  • T. ionantha: This plant has fleshy, curving, frosted-looking leaves and can grow to about a foot tall. There are many cultivars of this species, some of which blush dramatically before opening red or purple blooms.
  • T. tectorum: So hairy its curving spikes almost look white, this plant prefers a quick dunk or frequent misting over long soaks, and must be allowed to dry out. This species can take more light than many. Can grow to 6-8 inches.
  • T. tenuifolia: These plants have bronze-green, arching, strappy foliage and may develop a curve as they grow taller. The leaves can reach 6 inches long.
  • T. xerographica: The queen of air plants has silvery leaves that form a drooping, tightly curled rosette. More squat in shape, this species has been known to reach 3 feet wide. Plants send up a red or purple flower spike.

You can look for air plants at your local nursery or order online from or

Fill A Bowl With Air Plants

Gather several different air plants in one bowl to create a tiny container garden brimming with plants. Select different textures and colors to add a lot of interest in one spot. Place the bowl near a window or sink to allow for easy watering. You can even use a bell jar to cover the bowl. This shows off your handiwork and also increases the humidity, which tropical types will appreciate.

Propagating Air Plants

Air plants do much of the work for you when it comes to propagation. Each plant produces just one long-lived bloom, then begins growing one or more pups at its base. Normally, the pups remain attached for months or even years until the mother plant dies. You can speed up the process by removing the pup with a sharp knife, cutting carefully to make sure you don't lose any of the pup's base. Pups depend on the mother plant to grow, so don't remove them until they are 1/3 to 1/2 of the mother plant's size.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

Air plants can become infested by mealy bugs, which suck sap from the leaves and are easily detected by their cottony bodies. A black, sooty mold can also appear on leaves. Scale insects look like tiny bumps or shells and can cause the leaves to yellow and fall apart. Separate an infested air plant from others and soak it in water to eliminate as many insects as possible. Quarantine the plant until you are sure any pests are gone, and follow up with an appropriate insecticide if needed.

It's not unusual for air plants to occasionally develop browning foliage that can be snipped away, but sometimes it does indicate a problem. Often underwatering is the culprit, but sometimes the opposite is true. Watering a plant too much can also cause rot at the base, which eventually leads to the leaves falling apart. At that point, there's not much you can do. But if you catch the rot earlier, there are steps you can take to save the plant.

If leaves have developed dark spots from rot or a fungus, peel away infected leaves from the plant. Wait a week, submerge your plant upside down when watering, and then allow it to dry completely. If you have a xeric plant, increase the time between waterings or switch to misting every few days. Water early in the day rather than at night. Don't set your air plant in a damp environment like a sealed terrarium or in a dim, poorly lit room. If necessary, move the plant to a spot with better ventilation and light.

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