Air plants care and growing guide: tips to help them thrive

Essential advice on how to care for air plants without needing any soil, plus tips on keeping these indoor marvels flourishing

how to care for air plants on a stem
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Knowing how to care for air plants properly is all it takes to grow these magical plants. As the name suggests, these plants grow in air, needing no soil to survive. Once you're up to speed with the info, nothing could be easier than brightening up your home with a range of these fantastic indoor plants. With their intriguing foliage and flowers they create a contemporary designer look that takes so little effort to maintain. 

The flowers tend to be brightly colored and often appear from bracts, which are petal-like modified leaves. These flowers add another layer of interest when they appear. In some species, the leaves also change color as the flower buds start to develop, forming a skirt of red or pink foliage to accompany the blooms.

These tiny treasures come in a range of shapes, textures and colors so choose a few contrasting varieties to build an eye-catching collection. It's perhaps this versatility which makes them one of the best indoor plants. But they can also be grown outdoors in warmer, humid climates.

air plants displayed on a white shelf

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What are air plants?

Air plants are a type of bromeliad and belong to the Tillandsia group. In the wild, they are found growing on other plants or rocks and are known as epiphytes, which means they absorb nutrients and moisture through their leaves rather than a network of roots, although they may develop ‘anchor roots’ that help them to hook on to their host. 

If you look closely at the foliage, you will see that it’s covered in what look like tiny hairs. In fact, these are specialised scales, or trichomes, which help them take up water, and plants that feature lots of these will have silvery or fluffy appearance and come from desert regions, while the darker green types have fewer trichomes and hail from tropical forests. It means that air plants are ideally suited to creating tropical garden ideas both indoors and out. 

Tillandsias, air plants in sea urchin shells as bathroom decoration

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How to care for air plants

All air plants are easy to care for, and because they take up very little space, they’re ideal for indoor garden ideas in small rooms and apartments.

While they do require very little maintenance, you will need to know how to care for air plants correctly for them to truly thrive. 

  • The first rule when it comes to air plant care is to never plant them in soil, which will be too moist for them and they will subsequently rot and die.
  • Air plants will thrive in a fairly humid atmosphere, so can be a good choice for bathrooms. 
  • Don't place air plants too close to windows where there is lots of direct sunlight for prolonged periods of the day as the heat from the sun will be excessive. 
  • It's only necessary to mist your air plants once or twice a week.
  • To give air plants a boost, it's a good idea to feed them with a specialist plant fertilizer during spring and summer, which will aid their growth. You can reduce this at other times of the year. 

Tillandsia air plants in glass containers

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How much sunlight do air plants need?

Simply display them on a dry surface in a bright area for a striking indoor plant idea in your home. Keep them out of direct sunlight, and preferably in a humid atmosphere, such as in a kitchen or bathroom. If your home receives little natural sunlight, opt for green-leaved varieties like Tillandsia bulbosa and Tillandsia cyanea or try a silvery Tillandsia xerographica in sunnier spots.

Keep all air plants, including the desert-dwelling species, away from south-facing windows, which may scorch them during the summer months. Also do not grow them close to radiators and heated floors.

air plant Tillandsia (Tillandsia aeranthos), blooming

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What's the best temperature for air plants?

Most air plants will be happy in an average home environment – ideal temperatures for them are between 60–75°F (15–24°C) although they will tolerate hotter and cooler conditions as well. A small selection, including Tillandsia aeranthos, will even cope with a few degrees below freezing point. But check labels carefully for individual plant’s temperature tolerances, to see what your choices will be happy with. 

Good air flow also helps to keep these plants healthy. So from spring to autumn when the weather allows, open the windows to keep it circulating and to top up humidity levels.

Tillandsia (Tillandsia spec.), different Tillandsias on a stem

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How to water an air plant

Air plants can be either misted or soaked in a shallow tray of tepid rainwater or distilled water once or twice a week – water less frequently in winter when temperatures and growth rates are lower. To soak them, remove the plants from their displays and place them in the tray so that the leaves are submerged. After 20–30 minutes, take the plants out and leave them to drain and dry off, which may take a few hours, before returning them to their containers or mounts. 

If you can’t remove the plants from their displays or if you have a silvery or fluffy looking desert species that requires less water, the best option is to mist them with a fine spray – again, ensure that there is plenty of air flow around the plants so that they dry off and no water collects between the leaves. Mark Smith of Love Tillys (opens in new tab), a specialist air plant nursery, also recommends growing them outside in warmer climates as a balcony garden idea.

'Set them in a shady area and your plants will enjoy their holiday in the garden, or on a balcony or windowsill. They love rainwater and the light breezes outside provide ideal conditions for them. If you have no outdoor space and plan to keep your air plants indoors all year, mist them a little more frequently in hot weather.'

Tillandsia (air plants) soaking in water with plant food.

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Feeding air plants

These plants will put on more growth and flowers if they are given a specialist air plant fertilizer once a week in spring and summer, and twice a month in fall and winter. To feed, simply add the fertilizer to the water in a tray or misting bottle. 

Despite being one of the best tropical plants, these little plants are tough and forgiving, so don’t worry if you forget to feed them from time to time, but never be tempted to add twice as much fertilizer to make up for missed applications, as this may do them more harm than good.

Close up of woman, spraying air plant tillandsia by vintage steel water sprayer

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Where to place air plants

Since air plants need no soil to survive, the sky is literally the limit when displaying them. You can pop them into shells, set them on a sandy base in a glass jar or a hanging tealight holder as an indoor hanging plant, or set them on a decorative piece of wood or on a rock. Mark says that the easiest way to show off your plants is to just place them on their mount or in a glass container, but he warns against pushing them too far into a shell or mossy surface, where their bases will not be able to dry off properly after misting, which may cause them to rot. 

If you want to create a more ambitious display, perhaps attaching your plants to rocks or crystals, or hanging them upside down from a shell suspended from the ceiling, you will need to glue them in place. Mark advises using a silicone rubber fixative to do this, taking care not to get the glue on the very bottom of the plant, which will prevent its small anchor roots from developing. 

'As this fixative takes some hours to set, use a support to hold the plant in place while it cures – a rubber band, wire or string is ideal. Alternatively, you can use a low-melt craft glue, which sets more quickly. This is applied with a glue gun, but the adhesive will be very hot as it emerges, so add a blob to the support, wait for 10–30 seconds to allow it to cool and become tacky, and then attach the plant via a leaf or the base.'

air plant in glass hanging from macrame plant hanger

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Common pests and diseases for air plants

Air plants rarely suffer from attacks by pests or diseases making them some of the more low maintenance indoor plants. Mark says: 'They are one of the best plants for beginners because they have so few problems, and while we may have to protect other plants from pests such as thrips or mealy bugs, these little beauties have so far never been affected.'

High angle close up of woman holding plant pot with a selection of air plants

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How do you make more air plants?

After your air plant has finished blooming, remove the faded flower stem to allow the plant to focus on new leaf growth, rather than making seed. 

To create new plants to bulk up your collection or give away to friends, you can detach the pups when they are one third of the size of the mother and simply grow them on as normal, watering and feeding as described above – it’s as easy as that.

close up of air plant pruning

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Can you keep air plants in the bathroom?

The simple answer is yes. In fact, air plants are one of the best plants for bathrooms. Bathrooms are often more humid than other areas of the house and air plants draw moisture in from the air through their leaves. The more moisture in the air the healthier the plant.

Just be sure to keep them in a bathroom which gets a good amount of natural light and keep your plant out of direct sunlight.

Zia Allaway
Zia Allaway

Zia Allaway is a garden book author, editor, and journalist, and writes for a range of gardening and women’s magazines, including Easy Gardens, Homes & Gardens and Livingetc, as well as The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph newspapers. She has also written books for the Royal Horticultural Society and Dorling Kindersley publishers, including Eco-Gardening, Compost, Low Maintenance, Practical House Plant Book, Practical Cactus & Succulent Book, Indoor Edible Garden, What Plant Where, and the Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers.