Complete Guide to Aerial Plants

Aerial plants grow on other structures or surfaces, typically above the ground. There are several types of aerial plants; each adapted to different environments and conditions.

Here are some common types:

  1. Epiphytes:
    • These plants grow on the surface of other plants, such as trees, but do not rely on them for nutrients. Instead, epiphytes derive nutrients from the air, rain, and organic matter that accumulates around them.
    • Examples include orchids, bromeliads, and ferns.
  2. Parasitic Plants:
    • Parasitic plants obtain nutrients from a host plant, often at the expense of the host’s health. They may attach themselves to the host plant and extract water and nutrients directly.
    • Examples include mistletoe and dodder.
  3. Aerophytes:
    • These plants grow on other structures, such as rocks or man-made objects, and obtain nutrients from the air and rain. They don’t rely on a host plant for support or sustenance.
    • Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is an example of an aerophyte.
  4. Lithophytes:
    • Lithophytes grow on rocks and derive nutrients from minerals in the rock surface. They have adaptations to withstand harsh conditions such as strong sunlight and limited water availability.
    • Some orchids and mosses can exhibit lithophytic characteristics.
  5. Saxicolous Plants:
    • Similar to lithophytes, saxicolous plants grow on rocks, but they might also include plants that grow in crevices or on the soil over rocks.
    • Alpine plants and certain succulents can be considered saxicolous.
  6. Ant Plants:
    • These plants have a mutualistic relationship with ants. They provide shelter and food for the ants, and in return, the ants offer protection and may contribute to nutrient cycling.
    • Examples include the Myrmecodia genus.
  7. Rhipsalis (Mistletoe Cacti):
    • These cacti are epiphytic and often found in tropical rainforests. They have adaptations such as thin stems and reduced leaves to reduce water loss.
  8. Climbers/Vines:
    • Climbing plants have specialized structures that allow them to climb and cling to various surfaces with the help of specialized structures like tendrils, twining stems, or clinging roots.

Features of Different Aerial Plant Types

FeatureEpiphytesAir Plants (Tillandsias)Climbers/Vines
AttachmentGrow on other plants or objects without taking nutrientsTypically attach themselves to trees or rocksClimb using tendrils, twining, or clinging roots
RootsOften have aerial roots for support, not for nutrient uptakeLimited or no roots for nutrient absorptionDevelop extensive root systems for support and absorption
SubstrateObtain nutrients from air, rain, and debris accumulationExtract nutrients from the air and water vaporRequire a solid substrate for anchorage and nutrient uptake
ExamplesOrchids, ferns, bromeliadsTillandsia (Air plants)Ivy, Honeysuckle, Philodendron
AdaptationsAdaptations for water retention, as they rely on atmospheric moisture and rainSpecialized trichomes for water absorption and unique physiological adaptationsSpecialized structures for climbing, like tendrils or clinging roots
HabitatFound in rainforests, tropical and temperate regionsNative to tropical and subtropical regionsCan be found in various environments, including forests, deserts, and gardens

In this article, we are focusing on Air Plants.

What are aerial plants or air plants?

Air Plants are a unique type of plant that do not require soil to grow.

They are part of the Tillandsia genus in the bromeliad family. These plants are native to tropical and subtropical regions of North and South America. 

They are epiphytes, meaning they attach themselves to other plants or objects for support but do not rely on these hosts for nutrients.

Air plants, Tillandsia

 Instead, they absorb moisture and nutrients from the air through specialized cells on their leaves called trichomes. Air plants are generally divided into two categories: mesic and xeric.

Mesic air plants come from moderately humid regions such as South American rainforests.

They thrive in a canopy of trees and prefer more filtered light.

The leaves of mesic types are deeper green, smoother, and slightly cupped.

Xeric air plants are from desert-like climates and are often rock dwellers. Their leaves have larger numbers of trichomes, resulting in a gray or fuzzy appearance. Often, their leaves are wider.

There are more than 650 types of air plants, and they vary widely in size, shape, color, and form7. Some popular types include:

  1. Tillandsia ionantha, or the sky plant, is a bromeliad plant. Sky plants often bloom bright flowers toward the end of their life.
  2. Tillandsia usneoides, or Spanish moss, differs from other air plants in that the leaves hang rather than sprout up. In its natural environment, Spanish moss can be found draped over tree branches.
  3. Tillandsia caput-medusae is also referenced as the head of Medusa due to its distinct shape.
  4. Tillandsia xerographica is a slow-growing large plant characterized by its full and striking spherical shape.
  5. Tillandsia brachycaulos is one of the most common air plants and readily hybridizes with others. It is found in numerous climates and is very adaptable to different conditions.

Air plants are popular houseplants due to their unique growth habit and relatively easy care. They need to be watered about once a week and absorb nutrients from water through their leaves instead of roots. 

They can be used in various home decor settings due to their versatility and unique appearance.

Many air plants on a table

Aerial plants have roots above the ground. 

Aerial plants are often found in rainforests where competition at ground level for light and food has led to their evolution.

How do air plants survive?

Tillandsias are called air plants because they take water and nutrients from rain, fog, and dust through small hairs (trichomes) on their leaves.

Roots anchor an air plant (Tillandsias), securing plants to their supports. Leaves handle the job of absorbing moisture. Each leaf on an air plant is covered in specialized scales known as trichomes, which have the ability to absorb water and nutrients. Some trichomes are smooth; others are hairy.

What are the aerial parts of plants?

Aerial parts of the plant are parts that are completely exposed to air.

Actually, the underground parts can be roots, stems ( we study the underground modifications of the stem), some fruits (e.g., groundnuts), and flowers (viola).

We cannot say that a particular plant part is always aerial because it varies from plant to plant.

Green leaves are always aerial because light is necessary for the formation of chlorophyll.

Are air plants easy to take care of?

In general, yes. They don’t have pests and soil to worry about and don’t really get sick.

However, there are a few things I’d watch out for:

One, do not to keep your air plant in a small glass globe or enclosed space.

They are called air plants for a reason: they like airflow.

If you really want to keep your air plant in a globe or something because it’s pretty (I don’t blame you!), take it out for watering and only put it back in when it’s fully dry.

Next up is watering.

This is a big one, and I’ve killed numerous air plants due to this issue before I figured out where I went wrong.

First, underwatering…do not think you can mist your plant once a week and have it survive.

It will slowly shrivel up and die.

You should SOAK your air plant once a week for a few HOURS.

Do not feel like your drowning your plant.

I’ve accidentally left a few plants submerged in the water for a few DAYS and they were just fine (one even flowered right after the incident…don’t try it though!).

After soaking, make sure to let your plant rest in a sunny spot upside-down.

If water stays lodged in the base of the air plant for too long it will rot and fall apart.

Lastly, make sure to put it in a sunny window…air plants are tropical

Small cultivars of air plants look cute in the popular glass hanging globes as long as there are enough openings to vent warm air.

You can decorate them with gravel, pieces of driftwood, or dyed preserved moss (color can run when wet), but remember to mist them or wet the leaves a couple of times a week.

Aerial Plants

Do Air Plants Grow Roots?

Even though air plants absorb water and nutrients from their trichomes, or sponge-like cells on their leaves, they still grow roots.

Because air plant roots have been trimmed off before you buy them, you may wonder: Do they have roots? 

The answer is: Yes they do. Though they perform a much different function than roots do for other plants.

These roots perform a different function than the roots of most other plants. The sole purpose of these roots is to grab hold of a host plant. 

Air plants do not harm the host plant, they need a good anchor. When you first purchase an air plant, the roots will have already been trimmed off. Over time these roots will eventually begin to grow again.

If your air plant has begun to grow roots, remember these roots are completely normal and can be trimmed off, and the air plant won’t suffer a bit.

How much light do air plants need?

In a home setting, give an air plant bright but filtered sunlight, like that found near an east-, south- or west-facing window.

Many gardeners place an air plant in a bathroom to take advantage of shower-generated humidity, but having adequate sunlight is more important.

Outdoors, a screened porch, lanai, or pool enclosure usually give air plants the filtered sunlight they crave.

Can an air plant die of neglect?

Yes it can absolutely die of neglect. I assume you are talking about growing them indoors.

In rare cases, I’ve heard of ones that have survived indoors with no watering over long periods of time, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Watering is probably the trickiest part of growing these unusual plants. Air plants often die from underwatering in an interior room because their owners mistakenly assume the plants absorb moisture from the air.

That scenario works on a cloud-swaddled Andes mountaintop or in a rainforest. Air plants need water in the dry air of a heated or air-conditioned room.

Use rain water or bottled drinking water. Avoid using softened water; it’s high in salts. If you live in an area with hard water, the chalk content in the water will eventually clog the trichomes on air plant leaves.

When you remove plants from the water, gently shake them upside down a few times to dislodge water from the center of the plant.

In a typical indoor setting, an air plant watered by submerging shouldn’t need watering for 10 to 14 days. Monitor your plant’s appearance to learn when to water.

Take note of how the plant looks the day after watering. Note leaf color and appearance. Leaves on a drought-stressed air plant may curl under, color may seem flatter, and leaf tips may turn brown.

Are air plants toxic to pets?

Tillandsia or air plants are non-toxic. Thankfully, after accidental testing, we found that aerial plants are not toxic to humans and pets. So if your cat, or dog, or child eats your air plant, it will be no worse for wear. 

We do not make any claims based on scientific research but anecdotally, we have not heard of any incidents to suggest they are not safe for pet’s with a penchant for eating your precious house plants.

Aerial Plants

How do Air plants reproduce?

Air plants, scientifically known as Tillandsia, reproduce through a process called pup formation. Here’s an overview of how air plants reproduce:

  1. Pup Formation:
    • The primary reproduction method for air plants is the production of offsets, or “pups.” Pups are small, new shoots that grow from the mother plant’s base.
    • As the air plant matures, it will start to produce these pups, which emerge from the base of the plant near its roots.
    • Pups can vary in size and appearance but generally resemble miniature versions of the adult plant.
  2. Life Cycle:
    • Air plants typically have a monocarpic life cycle, meaning that the individual rosette flowers only once in its lifetime. However, the plant produces one or more pups before or after flowering.
    • After flowering, the mother plant may gradually decline, but the pups continue to grow and mature, eventually becoming independent plants.
  3. Separation of Pups:
    • Once the pups have reached a certain size and have developed their own root system, they can be separated from the mother plant.
    • Carefully remove the pups from the base of the adult plant, ensuring that they have enough roots to support themselves.
    • Allow the separated pups to dry for a few hours to promote the formation of a callus on the cut surface before reattaching them to a new surface or substrate.
  4. Attachment to New Substrate:
    • Air plants do not root in soil like traditional plants. Instead, they anchor themselves to various surfaces using specialized trichomes (hair-like structures) on their leaves.
    • Attach the pups to a new substrate, such as a piece of wood, cork, or another decorative element. The trichomes on the leaves allow the air plant to absorb water and nutrients from the air.
  5. Growing Conditions:
    • Provide the pups with the same care as the mature air plants, including proper light, air circulation, and occasional water soaks or misting.
    • As the pups grow, they will develop into mature air plants and may eventually produce their own pups, continuing the reproductive cycle.

How should air plants be fertilized?

To fertilize air plants, use a water-soluble fertilizer developed for ephiphytes, bromeliads, or air plants.

These specialized fertilizers contain nitrogen in the form air plant leaves can absorb.

Add fertilizer to the water before submerging your air plant. For best results, follow package directions.

Aerial Plants

What are the easiest air plants to take care of?

Below are our top five easiest aerial plants to take care of and some information about them to get you started.

Tillandsia stricta ‘Black Tip’ 

Tillandsia stricta ‘Black Tip’ is a small-to-medium-sized dark green air plant with vertical, pointed leaves that deepen in color at the ends. 

Special Notes: this is considered one of the easiest air plants to grow, so it’s great for beginners.

Learn how to grow the Black Tip Tillandsia here.

Tillandsia ionantha v. rubra

Tillandsia ionantha v. rubra is a small, ball-shaped air plant with bright green leaves that deepen to a crimson color in the center of the plant. It is heavily covered in trichomes, giving it a fuzzy appearance.

Tillandsia ionantha ‘Conehead’ 

Tillandsia ionantha ‘Conehead’ is large and shaped like a spiky pinecone. The foliage blushes bright red when flowering, producing a beautiful purple flower spike.

The leaves grow more upright than many other air plants, giving it its characteristic compact cone shape.

Tillandsia ionantha v. scaposa 

Tillandsia ionantha v. scaposa has straight, upward growing foliage that forms a tight bundle shape. Its leaves are pale green and can look almost white sometimes.

When in bloom, the inner leaves turn red and it produces a bright purple flower bract. 

Special Notes: the leaves are more fragile on this Tillandsia than others, so be gentle when you handle it. Tillandsia ionantha v. scaposa likes frequent watering and cool temperatures.

Tillandsia magnusiana 

Tillandsia magnusiana has thin, silver leaves that branch out into a wild mane.

Its flower is purple and grows on a red spike sent up form the middle of the plant. 

Special Notes: this air plant prefers cool temperatures and lots of air circulation.

Read the 20 Easiest Air Plants to Grow!

What and when should I spritz or mist my air plants?

Skip the Spritz and the Mist!

Often when you buy Air plants or Tillandsia at the store, the label recommends spritzing them with water from a misting bottle a few times each week.

We wouldn’t recommend this, though, as spritzing is just too inconsistent and doesn’t provide the air plant with enough moisture.

Do this: Soak them. Under most conditions once or twice a week for 15–30 minutes each time is enough, their just not that picky. This works for me, the website has slightly different ideas.

You’ll soon find out what works for you, pay attention to their appearance that’s all, if they don’t look healthy adjust your pattern in watering.

Aerial Plants

Do my Air Plants need a Bath?

Giving your aerial plants a “bath” or submerging them in a bowl of water for a bit is the best way to water them when they need it.

To water air plants, remove them from wherever you have them displayed and submerge in a bowl or sink full of enough water to completely cover them.

Parts of the plants will float up above the water—this is okay, just make sure that the majority of each air plant is submerged in the water.

Leave them in the bath for one hour. Remove each plant, hold facing upside down, and shake well to get rid of any excess water that may be pooling at the base of the inner leaves.

Return your air plants to their regular spot until it is time to bathe them again.

This part is important, don’t let their little “root” segment soaking wet.

Aerial Plants

Why can’t I use tap water to water air plants?

Water from the tap or from any municipal water supply has been treated with chemicals including chlorine to make is safe to drink.

You don’t want to use this chlorinated water for your air plants as it can harm them.

Instead, use rainwater or filtered water if possible.

If you want to use tap water, allow it to sit out in a bowl for 24 hours first so that the chlorine evaporates. Chlorine can turn the tips of the leaves brown.

Aerial Plants

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