How to Care for Air Plants

Until recently few people knew what a tillandsia fasciculata was let alone it was the scientific name for what is commonly called an “air plant”.  Both whimsical and bizarre, air plants have become the plants of choice for design magazines, interior stylists and those in the “know”. These amazing plants do not require soil to grow so they are able to exist in a variety of environments which makes them great for decorating.  But exactly how does one take care of these little wonderfully odd plants?  To answer this question, we turned to Zenaida Sengo, the resident tillandsia expert for San Francisco-based plant nursery Flora Grubb.  Sengo recently wrote a book entitled Air Plants: The Curious World of Tillandsias that is a primer for all things related to air plants.  We met with her and got the low down on how to care as well as display these modern beauties.

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How often should you water your air plant? 

You should water your air plant nearly every day if you are just misting because the application is so light. If you are drenching it for a few minutes or soaking for several hours then you can get by with less often such as 1-3 times per week. Basically, the more deeply you water, the more time it buys you. You should never really wait longer than a week between a water however for even desert species regularly harness early morning dew.

How much light do they need?

Tillandsias love as much bright indirect light as you can give them with an additional brief period of direct sun during early morning or late afternoon.

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Is there a preferred method for watering them?

I like combining all the methods-misting/briefly rinsing or dunking/soaking. After all, climate and precipitation is always varying. Sometimes we get light rains or heavy downpours and sometimes we get none of that and depend on fog, humidity, or dew. But honestly, it’s mostly about my own busy schedule. I know air plants look best with every day misting but it’s hard to keep up with that. So when I can’t, I supplement in other ways. When I’ve been really busy they all get an overnight soak in the tub!

What’s your favorite way to display your air plants at home?

One of my most favorite ways to display my tillandsias is to simply stick them in the bases of my potted cacti. It’s wonderfully convenient on multiple levels- you don’t have to acquire or find place for another container, It pleasantly covers the bare soil, and it makes watering easy because I can give them a more lengthy spray when when the cactus are ready for their trickle of water thus watering two plants at the same time. I’m also a huge fan of a fully mature air plant clump and I love to suspend soccerball sized clumps around like Kokedama. Lastly, but oozing with style, I love to hang architectural grids and stuff them full of star shaped tillandsias. It’s an easy, instant living wall and can even function as an infirmary where you can sneak in your recovering plants.

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What’s a container that you should not use for displaying your air plants? 

You should never set your air plants on top of the soil level of plants that require regular moisture like ferns or philodendrons-their bases will rot out. You should also never put air plants into containers with a sealed lid that have no air flow as they will suffocate

How can you tell if your air plant is healthy?

Healthy air plants feel robust, springy, they can drop to the ground and bounce. You can tug on their leaves with no effect. Unhealthy air plants have wrinkled or channeling leaves upon close examination, they feel brittle and they may break apart on impact or stress. Leaves will pull out easily.

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Can air plants survive outside?

In climates that don’t drop below 45 F yes. In colder areas they should be in protected areas like patios, sheltered by your home. Hard frosts will often kill air plants though some have been known to survive a brief frost.

If you were going to a make a centerpiece using air plants what other plants do you recommend combining?

I like single species arrangements when striving to design with air plants. The repetition is clean and recognizable from all angles and distances. Tall grassy species look great in low boat or bowl shapes. Since grasses can’t be grown indoors, grassy structured tillandsias are a great substitute when after that modern sophisticated look of a sleek grass.

Ready to test out  Zenaida advice on air plants of your own?  Fortunately for Spring/Summer we have a variety of air plants in stock (shhh… one of these is faux but we won’t tell if you don’t)!

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