How Do You Grow Air Plants? (Hint: They Don’t Need Soil!)

How to Care for Air Plants - A collection of various kinds of air plants sit in a cluster on a wooden table.
Geri Lavrov

Sure, you love your easy-care pothos, elegant alocasia and striking snake plant. But if you need a fun new houseplant to brighten up the place, it’s time to get an air plant. Air plants, also known as Tillandsia, have been trending in recent years because they’re low maintenance, don’t take up a ton of space. and aren’t terribly pricey. (Plus, their weird and wonderful shapes are pretty darn adorable.) But, once you have a few, how do you grow air plants? And care for them in general? We’ve got your back.

As their name indicates, air plants don’t grow in soil. They’re actually epiphytes, like orchids and Spanish moss, which means they attach themselves to a host plant or rock for support, but not for nutrients. They absorb water and nutrients via trichomes, specialized cup-like hairy structures on their leaves.

Native to Central and South America and the Southern U.S., air plants are easy to grow, if you give them what they need. Plus, they can be displayed in so many cool ways including inside glass globes, mounted on a piece of wood, on a decorative stand, or in a wreath. They even can be used in bouquets, boutonnieres, hair accents or as wedding favors!

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Here's what these fun and funky houseplants need to thrive:

What Kind of Light Do Air Plants Need?

That depends on what kind you have. There are more than 600 varieties, but there are two main types: Mesic air plants have dark green leaves, which often are curled. This type grows under the canopy of big trees in a forest, so they need bright, indirect light. They’ll burn in direct sunlight. A few feet from a bright, sunny south, east or west-facing window works well.

Xeric air plants have flatter, silver leaves with lots of fuzzy trichomes. They’re native to desert environments so they can survive in bright direct sunlight. In warm regions, many types of xeric air plants can survive outdoors. Indoors, they need very bright direct light in a south, east or west-facing window. This type of air plant is a little more forgiving about care, so they’re a good starter air plant.

How Do I Water an Air Plant?

Tillandsia typically need watered once or twice a week. Misting isn’t sufficient; you’ll need to soak mesic types for 20 to 30 minutes in a bowl of water. They’re sensitive to chemicals in tap water, so use rainwater, spring water or tap water that’s been allow to sit out for a few hours to allow the chemicals to dissipate. Xeric plants thrive in the desert, so they only need dunked a few times or swished around in a bowl of water.

After soaking or dunking, shake out your air plant to get rid of excess moisture. Let it drain upside down on a towel before placing it back in its decorative container. (Carol Papas, Allegheny County master gardener, recommends letting them drain for at least four hours.) This is a very important step! If your air plant remains wet, it can rot. Overwatering is the most common reason air plants die.

Finally, pay attention to how your plant looks after watering. The lush, plump appearance is how a properly hydrated air plant should look. This should help you figure out when it’s time to water again.

How Often Should You Fertilize an Air Plant?

Air plants need fertilizer that’s formulated for orchids and bromeliads. All-purpose houseplant fertilizer contains a type of nitrogen that uses bacteria in the soil to break down into usable nutrients. But because air plants don’t need soil, they won’t be able to process it. Feed them when you water, but no more than once a month during the growing season, which is spring to summer.

How Long Do Air Plants Live?

With proper care, air plants can live for several years. Air plants bloom once in their lifetimes; afterward, they usually produce tiny plants, called pups, at the base of the mother plant. You can twist these off when they’re about half the size of the original plant, or leave them in place to form a clump. The mother plant eventually will die, but by then, you should have a few new air plant babies to nurture.

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Arricca Elin SanSone is a gardener with more than 15 years of experience. In addition to PureWow, she writes for Prevention, Country Living, Veranda, The Spruce and many other national publications.

She also trials new plant cultivars and field tests garden products to evaluate practicality and durability.

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Freelance Gardening Editor

Arricca Elin SanSone is a gardener with more than 15 years of experience. In addition to PureWow, she writes for Prevention, Country Living, Veranda, The Spruce and many other...