Air Plants Don't Need Soil—Here's What They Do Require to Thrive

Sure, these fun and trendy plants don't need soil, but they do still need a little attention. Here's what you need to know to keep them thriving.

Air plants seem almost otherworldly the way they can grow, well, just in air. Yep, no soil at all required. Plus their leaves can look a bit like alien tentacles or like the appendages of an exotic sea creature. These fascinating little plants have become quite popular over the last few years, appearing in just about any garden center or even in the checkout line at the grocery store. And there are plenty of online nurseries specializing in air plants, particularly the more unusual types. They're a bit different to grow than most other houseplants so we've rounded up a few tips for caring for air plants and enjoying them in your home.

air plants in planters

Krystal Slagle / BHG

About Air Plants

Air plants (Tillandsia spp.) are epiphytes, meaning that in nature they grow on other plants, usually on tree branches. There are hundreds of species and varieties of air plants. They usually have strap-shape or slender triangle-shape leaves that grow in a rosette pattern with new growth appearing from the center. Those with silver foliage tend to be the most drought-tolerant; greener types dry out faster. You can also find colorful species, like Tillandsia maxima that can have coral leaves. Most species produce attractive, tubular or funnel-shaped flowers, too.

yellow-green air plants in pot
Jacob Fox

Air Plant Care

Don't let the lack of soil scare you away. Air plants are easy to care for once you know what they need. You may not have to worry about potting them, but they do still need a certain amount of water and light, plus the right temperatures, just like any other houseplant. You'll know that an air plant is getting what it needs when it sends up flowers. Air plants bloom to propagate, so once the flower dries out, snip it off to promote new growth (or "pups"). You can separate the pups from the mother plant or allow them to grow and clump where they are. The mother plant will eventually die as the new offset plants will take over.

watering air plant by submerging in container of water

Krystal Slagle / BHG

Watering Air Plants

Air plants don't have roots like other plants; they only have a few short ones which are meant to help hold it onto whatever surface it's on. In their native habitats across the Southern United States, Mexico, Central and South America, air plants get what they need from high humidity and plentiful rainfall. In your home, you'll need to water your air plants about once a week. Some varieties can go two weeks without being watered. Keep an eye on them to determine when your plants seem to need a drink.

To water, place them in the sink or a small jar with enough water to submerge your plants. Let them soak for about half an hour, then give them a gentle shake or two to dislodge some water before turning them upside down on a towel to let them drain. Once they are dry, return them to their designated spot. You can also mist them every other day between baths to keep them looking fresh, especially in winter when humidity in our homes tends to be lower.

Air Plant Light Requirements

As a general rule, keep your air plants out of direct sunlight. Remember, in the wild, many air plant species like to grow up in the sheltered, shady canopy of trees. They will do best if you can put them in a brightly lit spot out of the sun's rays. A few species, such as T. cyanea or T. lindenii can handle some dappled shade or less intense morning sunlight.

Air Plant Temperature Requirements

Air plants love warm weather so it's the other end of thermometer you need to watch. Protect your plants from anything colder than 45 degrees; they will die at those temperatures. If you live in Zone 9 or warmer, you can grow an air plant outdoors all year if you keep it dry during the winter.

hanging air plants in front of window
Peter Krumhardt

Styling Air Plants

Air plants look great all on their own or in groups where you can display several varieties together. They can be placed in terrariums or attached to anything from magnets to driftwood for creating your own interesting displays—just use a bit of hot glue or translucent fishing line to secure them. Tillandsia species also make fine companions on a branch with orchids because they like essentially the same conditions. You can also find glass or plastic globes that are made specifically for hanging them. For varieties that have colorful leaves such as Tillandsia aeranthos 'Amethyst', also called the rosy air plant, try using a container that complements or contrasts with their hues.

Because they don't need to grow in soil, air plants can be displayed in just about any way you can dream up. Try using them as an air plant wreath, hanging mobile, or even a beach-themed terrarium that plays off their resemblance to an octopus. Without much effort on your part, these plants can add fun, unique greenery to just about any space.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long can an air plant live as a houseplant?

    The average lifespan of an individual air plant is between two and five years depending on the type, propagation method, and level of care—but a single plant can produce enough offshoots (or “pups”) to live indefinitely. If grown from seed, an air plant will take two years or longer to grow much bigger than 1 inch. Pups, on the other hand, will grow quicker than seed-grown plants and can bloom within the first few years of life. Whether grown from seed or propagation, air plants will bloom only once in their lifetime, but after they do, they can continue producing pups for years to come. 

  • What are the most common air plant problems to watch out for?

    Most air plant issues stem from improper care. If your air plant feels mushy, has dark spots on the base, or is starting to fall apart, it may be suffering from rot due to over-watering. If the leaves and tips are beginning to turn brown and crispy, your plant may be dehydrated. If the plant looks bleached out or white, it could be getting too much sun. If it looks dull, is losing leaves, and doesn’t seem to be growing, it may need more sun exposure. 

  • Do air plants need fertilizer?

    Fertilizer is not necessary for air plants to survive, but an occasional application (monthly or quarterly) could help your air plants thrive. That said, it is important not to overdo it when applying fertilizer as too much (or too strong of a dilution) could burn the leaves and kill the plant. 

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