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All About Air Plant Propagation and Pups

I had no way of knowing that when I started my collection, I would be stepping into a whole new world and developing a life-long love of all things “Air Plant”. How fascinating they are! How unique and exotic! And so easy to care for, too! I just can’t help being excited to watch my collection grow! I was surprised to find my first Air Plant Pup hiding behind what I thought was just a dead leaf. I knew right then I had some learning to do, and my research began.

Today I will share what my research revealed, as well as what I have learned from my hands-on experiences with my own Air Plant Pups.  I documented and took photos along the way to bring you…All About Air Plant Propagation and Pups!

You’ll be encouraged, I’m sure, to learn that the Air Plants you currently have will reproduce. One season you may have five Air Plants, and the very next season, you may have ten without even making a purchase!

Today we’ll go over the following topics regarding Air Plant Propagation and Reproduction:

  • How Air Plants Reproduce in Nature
  • The Complete Life-Cycle of an Air Plant Pup
  • What it Means When Your Air Plant is Blooming
  • How to Separate Pups from a Parent Air Plant
  • What Air Plant Pups Need to Grow Strong and Healthy

Additionally, I’ll answer some frequently asked questions (FAQ) regarding Air Plant Propagation and throw in some interesting facts you may not have known. We’ve got a lot to go over today, so we’d better dig in, but not into the soil because we won’t be needing that at all!

DID YOU KNOW? According to a scientific study, Air Plants clean the air in their environment better than any other plant of comparable size! The more Air Plants your home contains, the cleaner the air therein will be. 

How Air Plants Reproduce in Nature

There was a time when the only Air Plants that existed did so in their natural environment. Since then, mankind has adopted these exotic plants and “tamed’ them. That is to say, “we” took them from where they grew naturally and perfected growing them in our environment, both indoors and out! Anytime we want the “whole story” regarding something we’ve adopted from nature, we look back to that natural environment for information.

Air Plants grow naturally in tropical and sub-tropical environments. They have a symbiotic relationship with trees and other plants and are NOT parasites. The roots on Air Plants are for support only, and these roots anchor the Air Plants onto their host. They tend to attach themselves higher up on vegetation in shady areas. This is because Air Plants need a lot of light, but the light must be indirect.

Once attached, the Air Plant in nature receives its water by collecting ambient moisture through specialized cells. The same cells that collect water, called trichomes, also collect bits of decaying plant life and insect matter for nutrition. Trichomes are hair-like and grayish in color. People often mistake them for a fungus on the Air Plant, but I assure you, those cells are crucial to the lifespan of an Air Plant!

DID YOU KNOW? In Nature, Air Plants are pollinated and cross-pollinated primarily by Hummingbirds, Moths, and Bats!

Somewhere close to a Wild Air Plant’s second year of life, the plant will blossom. This blossoming indicates the plant has entered its reproductive cycle and that new Air Plants are on their way. Now the excitement begins! Do not be discouraged if two years have passed and you haven’t seen flowers yet, though! Some varieties of Air Plants will be closer to four years old when they bloom. If your plant is receiving all it needs to thrive (which we will go over in this article), it WILL eventually blossom!

DID YOU KNOW? An Air Plant will blossom exactly once in its life. The number of blooms will vary according to plant variety, and the flowering cycle (again according to variety) will last from about a week up to a full year!

Where Air Plant Pups Come From

A brand new Air Plant will come from one of two places. Pups will form right on the Parent Air Plant, either near the base, under a dying leaf, or from offshoot branches on the Parent. Alternatively, that beautiful bloom on an Air Plant will eventually turn to seed. In nature, these seeds either fall near the Parent Air Plant to grow, or are eaten by wildlife and “dropped” into a new area when the critter “eliminates” the seeds. Whatever happens to the seeds, if they “land” in a place that’s viable, the seedling will eventually attach itself to a host, and will continue to grow.

FAQ: Can I Harvest a Wild Air Plant?

ANSWER: This is an ethical question that only you can answer for yourself. I happen to live in an environment where Air Plants do grow naturally (and prolifically). When faced with this ethical dilemma, I opted to let common sense be my guide. When an Air Plant is thriving in its natural environment, I leave it right where it is to thrive.

However, there are instances where the Wild Air Plant is NOT thriving in its natural environment. The cost of mankind developing land is losing most (if not all) of the natural qualities the land possessed. If I see an Air Plant that is dying in nature, or that the land is being cleared in the name of development, I WILL rescue the Wild Air Plant s it has a chance at a full life AND to achieve reproduction. 

The Complete Air Plant Pup Life Span

The photographs above and below show just how small an Air Plant Pup is when it has formed from a seed. I found the Parent Air Plant on a felled tree occupying an empty lot in my neighborhood. Looking around the Parent, I found several new Pups within several feet of the parent.

The new Pups were all less than half an inch tall (1cm)!  It will be at least one year before they are more than an inch tall, and will take between 2-4 years to achieve their reproductive cycle, where they will produce blossoms and Pups of their own.

The Life Cycle of an Air Plant Pup

We can safely divide the life span of an Air Plant Pup into three stages. These “life stages” are:

  1. The Air Plant Pup’s Growth Cycle (from Pup to Adult (2-4 years)
  2. The Adult Air Plant’s Reproductive Cycle (up to 1 year)
  3. The Adult Air Plant’s “End of Life” Cycle (usually more than 2 years)

 This is not to say that an Air Plant lives 7 years! Who are we to say how long a healthy Air Plant will live?!? The above times are estimates, based on the average Air Plant Enthusiast’s experiences. Like all living things, an Air Plant can face death from even the youngest of ages, and a healthy Air Plant can live well beyond the “average” age.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these three special times in an Air Plant’s life.

YOU SHOULD KNOW: Air Plants are SLOW growers! An Air Plant variety that will be considered “Large” in its maturity is one that will measure more than 10 inches (25cm) in diameter, or grow to be more than 6 inches (15cm) tall. If you want to “go big” with Air Plants, buy big!

The Growth Cycle of an Air Plant Pup

We don’t want to skim over this important time in an Air Plant Pup’s life! Although we are anxious to get our plants to the exciting stage where they’ll bloom, everything we do before that has an impact on the reproduction cycle! The simple truth is this: Air Plants that do not receive optimum care during their growth cycle may not end up blossoming at all… and that would just be a shame! To ensure you’ll get to witness those exotic blooms in their proper time, give your air plant Pup everything it needs to mature in a hearty, healthy, and beautiful way.

4 Things an Air Plant Pup Needs to Flourish

  1. Adequate Light: Air Plant Pups require 8-12 hours of bright and indirect light daily.
  2. Sufficient Hydration: Your Air Plants will depend on you for their hydration. You will want to water them about once a week if you use the submersion method and about every three days if you use the misting method. If you’re new to the world of Air Plants, you can learn exactly how to water them (and which water to use) right here at Air Plant Central.
  3. Nutrition: If you have indoor Air Plant Pups, you will have to fertilize them periodically. It is imperative that you use fertilizer specially formulated for tillandsia and/or bromeliads. “Regular” plant fertilizers may contain zinc or boron, both fatal to Air plants. Because this fertilizer isn’t readily available in most garden departments at stores, I found mine on online. If you’d like to grab a bottle for yourself, this link will take you directly to it on Amazon.
  4. Protection from Toxins: Anything your Air Plant touches or “breathes in” through its trichomes should be toxin-free. We already saw that some fertilizers may contain zinc or boron, two elements that are toxic to Air Plants, but they are not the only two! Please refer to the helpful infographic just below to learn more. For a complete and extensive look at what’s toxic to Air Plants, you won’t want to miss this articleright here at Air Plant Central!

IT’S GOOD TO KNOW: There is no variety of Air Plant that is toxic to pets or humans! 

The Reproductive Cycle of an Air Plant

To reiterate what we’ve discovered to this point, an Air Plant Pup is going to make its appearance somewhere in the Parent Air Plant’s second to its fourth year of life, depending on whether the Parent formed from seed or was a Pup that formed on the parent plant.  A Pup from a seedling will then reproduce itself at around age four. An Air Plant Pup that formed on the Parent Plant can reproduce itself in about two years.

Sometimes it stands out that I’m not a professional photographer, but that’s okay by me… these are Air Plants in “real-time” and it doesn’t get sweeter than that!  Take a look at the photograph just above, if you will. I had a unique situation on my hands, truly! The Pup inside the green circle is forming from a seed created by the blossom. The seed landed right on the Parent Air Plant and attached itself there. How fun!

FAQ: How Should I Care for Pups on a Parent Air Plant?

ANSWER: The Pup on a Parent Air Plant has all its needs met as you tend to the needs of the Parent Air Plant. No special care is necessary.

How to Care for Air Plant Pup Seedlings

Knowing that the Air Plant Pup growth cycle is extremely slow, I took the  Seedling Pups I mentioned at the beginning of this article and placed them somewhere safe to live until they’re big enough to add to their own containers or displays. In this case, it’s a decorative bowl of moss!

I’ll make sure they have bright and indirect sunlight, and I’ll mist them about every other day. When they are about an inch tall (about 2 cm) I will find fun ways to display them. I want to mention that when using moss in any Air Plant display, it’s important to make sure neither the Pup Seedlings nor the Moss becomes saturated with water.

Our skin gets “pruney” when it’s over-exposed to moisture, but an Air Plant will begin to rot! It’s crucial after waterings to all both Air Plant AND Moss to dry in a way that won’t collect standing water.

Because Air Plant Rot is a tough issue to remedy, I wrote and complete and comprehensive article with symptoms and solutions for Air Plant Rot. Check it out HERE

DID YOU KNOW? Moss is also an Air Plant, requiring no soil to grow. Both Air Plants and moss are epiphytes, meaning they live on another plant (or tree) but are not parasitic.

The “End of Life” Cycle for Air Plants

 Although it’s true that your Air Plant will only blossom once in its life-span, it is a myth that the Parent Air Plant dies immediately after blooming. When the flower has died completely off, trim any brown from your Air Plant with sharp scissors. This includes the tract the blossom was on, as well as any brown tips or leaves. If the root area is askew or overgrown, you may want to trim that up too. 

Resume regular and normal care with the post-flowering Parent Air Plant. Whether or not you removed its Pups will determine the Parent Plant’s future. Please continue reading to find out how.

Removing an Air Plant Pup from the Parent Plant

IT’S GOOD TO KNOW! Certain Air Plants thrive better when displayed right-side-up. Since there are more than 450 varieties of Air Plants, with over 200 hybrid varieties, I’m going to spare you long lists with names difficult to remember.

As a rule of (green) thumb, if you want to try hanging your Air Plant up-side-down, go ahead! Within one week (sometimes less) you’ll know if it’s best for your particular Air Plant variety. If it gets limp or “droopy” flip it upright again. Easy-peasy! Most varieties are forgiving in this area. 

FAQ: When do I remove the Air Plant Pup from the Parent Plant?

ANSWER: An Air Plant Pup is ready to live independent from the Parent Plant when it reaches about a third the size of the said parent.

Photo examples ABC (above) show the Pup growing from my Caput Medusae. This is 2 months and 2 weeks of growth.   You can see in photo C, the pup will soon be big enough to be removed from the Parent Air Plant.  Below you’ll find even more Air Plant Pups around my indoor (and outdoor) Air Plant growing areas.  This is my Capitata Red air plant bloom and pup stages…Bloomed in April and the last photo was July 4th.

DID YOU KNOW? Although Air Plants grow naturally in tropical and sub-tropical environments, they can grow and flourish outdoors in temperatures ranging between 55 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit (roughly 12-35 Celsius).

How to Remove an Air Plant Pup from Parent Plant

To recap: An Air Plant Pup can be removed from the Parent Plant when the Pup grows to be about a third of the Parent Plant’s size.

There are 3 Methods to Remove an Air Plant Pup From its Parent They are:

  1. Pinch and twist the Air Plant Pup Off: Simply grab the Pup at its base between your thumbnail and whatever fingernail works best for you. When I use the pinch method, I pinch the Pup between my thumbnail and middle-fingernail, give a little twist and I have a new little plant. Again though, this is just preference. Make the pinch and twist firm, quick and clean. Voila! That’s it!
  2. An exacting tool, or Sharp Blade: CAUTION: Sharp blades can and WILL cut you! If you are under age 18 or have a “bad history” using sharp blades, please ask for assistance. That being said, the Air Plant Pup can be cut off the parent Plant with one quick and clean movement. The cleaner the cut, the better a Pup will adapt to no longer being connected to it parent.
  3. Sharp Scissors: Using a sharp and safe pair of scissors, snip the Air Plant Pup from the Parent Plant in one quick and clean snip. Easy as pie!

The photograph above illustrates an Air Plant Pup that is ready to be separated from the Parent Plant. Using any of the three methods I listed, quickly and cleanly sever the Pup from the Parent. I would recommend that you give the Pup about 15-30 minutes of submersion watering and then place it in the container or display you chose for the new Air Plant. Closely monitor the Pup for about a week to ensure it’s receiving adequate lighting.

That’s it! Now you can grow the Pups your Air Plants produce!

FUN AIR PLANT FACT: You can expect 1-3 Pups from most varieties of Air Plants.

FAQ: Can the Pups Stay Attached to the Parent Air Plant?

ANSWER: Absolutely! When Pups are allowed to remain on an Air Plant, what’s known as an Air Plant Cluster (or clump) will form. Many Air Plant enthusiasts keep at least one Air Plant cluster in their collection! The benefit of a cluster is that it can take Air Plants that are small in stature (even in adulthood) and make them appear larger.

Clusters are common in nature when the seeds that form from an Air Plant’s blossom fall all around the Parent Plant and attach themselves to that Parent for structural support.

The Cluster in the Photograph below is a photograph of a nicely formed Air Plant Ball Cluster that was being scorched by the Florida sunshine. After a nice hour-long submersion watering, the plant perked right up! It now hangs under a porch roof, where the sunlight is less direct and is currently flourishing! See for yourself in the photograph just below:

And take a look at the next photograph (below)! Doesn’t that Air Plant Cluster make a chic and elegant statement?!?

And so, keep your Air Plant Pups attached to the Parent Plant or separate them… the choice is yours to make!

FAQ: Can You Split/Separate an Air Plant?

ANSWER: Some Air Plants fare well when cut straight down through the center with a sharp knife, creating two plants from one. Most varieties, however, will not.

For instance, here in Florida, Tillandsia Setacea, also known as Southern Needle Leaf, grow prolifically in nature. I know an Air Plant enthusiast with a yard full of them! When she adds them to an outdoor display, she exhibits no qualms about cutting them to the size she desires, and none of the cut plants ever show signs of distress.

On the other hand, if I sliced my Caput Medusa in half down the center, within a day or so I would have two dead halves of an Air Plant.

To stay on the safe side, I wouldn’t recommend trying to increase your Air Plant population by dividing the plant itself. Pups are, by far, the best way to propagate Air Plants!

YOU SHOULD KNOW: I do not know of anyone who has been successful at starting an Air Plant from a clipping. I am not saying it can’t be done, because I cannot state that with certainty. I simply haven’t found a grower who has done it. You can be sure I am experimenting with the idea, and if I have any success, I’ll write a feature article here on Air Plant Central, I promise!

A Word About Pollinating Air Plants

One of the interesting facts I shared today was that Air Plants are pollinated and cross-pollinated by animals (and wind) in nature. While this is indeed true, Air Plants are actually self-pollinators. This means the pollen from an Air Plant’s stamen is transferred to the same Air Plant’s stigma.

All healthy Air Plants will produce Pups in their reproductive cycle, but seeds and seed pods will only form from the Air Plant’s blossom if the Air Plant has been successful in self-pollinating (or has had some help by man or animal).

To ensure the production of Air Plant seeds, some enthusiasts make sure pollination has occurred in their Air Plant(s) by pollinating the plant(s) themselves.

COOL AIR PLANT INFO: All Air Plants are perennial, which means their life-cycle is perpetual. The mother plant may die off, but likely not before it has produced at least one pup or offshoot to take it place.

How to Pollinate Your Air Plant(s)

If you want to ensure the blossom on your Air Plant(s) will turn to seed when the flower dies off, you can take a tiny soft paintbrush (or even a cotton swab) and get up in those stamen and stigma within the blossom yourself! Simply touch the stamen, touch the stigma, and repeat. Back and forth and back and forth!

Each Air Plant variety produces different blossoms. The photograph above isn’t any specific plant. Rather, it is to illustrate approximately what the stamen and stigma will look like.

YOU SHOULD KNOW: I appreciate you stopping in and hope that this article has armed you with everything you need to know about Air Plant propagation, and how to take care of those Pups! If you’re interested in a complete guide for keeping Air Plants alive, healthy and beautiful, you’ll find one just on the other end of this link

The More We Know, the Better our Air Plants Grow!

If you’ve just entered the world of Air Plants, here are some helpful links to get you growing! Each link will take you directly to the product on Amazon. I kept high-quality and economical prices in mind while I shopped, and considered product reviews and comments from the satisfied owners of the pictured plants. The first link is what started my whole Air Plant collection. I was highly satisfied with the assortment!

I share my research, as well as what I have learned from my hands-on experiences with my own Air Plant Pups.  I documented and took photos along the way to bring you…All About Air Plant Propagation and Pups!