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What Are Air Plants & Do They Really Grow With Just Air?

If you visit the Florida Keys, you’ll discover some front yards there look like a sub-tropical jungle! You may see folks outside watering, pruning, transplanting, and maintaining their personal paradise. 

When all is said and done though, the plants that require the LEAST amount of maintenance are often the ones most people notice first.  Air Plants!

Many people react with utter amazement to see these plants thriving with no soil!  And their first question after hearing the words “Air Plants” is often… “What are Air Plants… do they really grow with just air?”

For many, the concept can be hard to grasp! We all learned in grade school that to grow a plant, we stick a seed in the soil, water it, and wait. We even did it in Science class with a bean seed in a paper cup!  But Air Plants are not your typical Science class experiment!

So, what are Air Plants and do they really grow with just air??? In this article, your curiosity is going to be satisfied! Almost all Air Plants are Epiphytes, meaning they are a plant supported by another plant AND they need more than just air to grow. Let’s take a look at these amazing beauties. We’ll discover the “who, what, where, when, and HOW” of all things Air Plants!

Are Air Plants Real Plants?

Air Plants are alive. They grow, some bloom, and they have “pups” (off-shoots that can be separated into new plants). Additionally,  Air Plants can die! And so I can personally assure you, Yes, Air Plants are real plants!

Are Air Plants Parasites?

By definition, a parasite causes some sort of harm to the organism it attaches itself to. Air Plants use other plants, trees, bushes or shrubs strictly for support. The are nonintrusive and noninvasive. They would better be described as symbiotic than parasitic.

Who Can Grow Air Plants?

You can! Air Plants are low maintenance, inexpensive,  and thrive when they receive the proper amounts of sunlight and water. This makes them an ideal solution for those who do not proclaim to having a “green thumb”. Simply start small, find where they do best in your home (mine love my kitchen window) and then grow your collection as large as you like!

Where Do Air Plants Grow Naturally?

A sub-tropical to tropical climate is where you’ll find Air Plants growing naturally. The south-eastern section of the United States boasts several varieties of these beauties! Air Plants also grow naturally in northern Mexico, Mesoamerica, and the Caribbean to mid-Argentina. We even have them right here in central Florida!

When Do Air Plants Bloom? Seasonally?

Air Plants are perennial, meaning they live longer than two years. They are year-round plants, and not seasonal. The varieties of Air Plants that do bloom, often bloom as their life-span reaches its end. The blooms then give way to seeds, and new plants grow from them.

The History of Air Plants

No one can say when the very first Air Plant was “discovered”. Likely, they have been around since the beginning of all plants. We do know, though, that the genus Tillandsia was named by Carl Linnaeus after the Swedish physician and botanist Dr. Elias Tillandz who lived from 1640–1693.

The Science of Air Plants

Tillandsia is the genus of Air Plants, and  Bromeliaceaethe family. As mentioned earlier, most Air Plants are Epiphytes, meaning that they support themselves on another plant. Some, though, are Aerophytes that can rest on telephone wires, poles, and even bare rocks!

How Do Air Plants Photosynthesise?

Photosynthesis occurs through a method called Crassulacean Acid Metabolism”, or CAM Photosynthesis, for short. This means they close their stoma (pores) during the day for water-loss prevention and open them at night. At night when the stoma is opened, the Air Plant processes carbon dioxide and releases oxygen.

How Do Air Plants Receive Nourishment?

The main difference between Air Plants and soil-grown or hydroponic plants is that Air Plants have special cells in their leaves that collect and process ambient humidity, instead of drawing water up through their roots.

Air Plants also collect and utilize decaying leaves and insect matter through trichomes, the small “hairlike” structures we see on them.

How Do Air Plants Reproduce?

Like all plants, Air Plants reproduce by pollination and seed formation. They are not self-fertile, however. Pollination comes from other plants within the same species.

When you see “pups” shooting off the main plant, you can safely remove them with a quick scissor-snip. Voila! You now have two Air Plants (or more).

Do Air Plants Have Roots?

You may be surprised to learn that YES, many Air Plants do have roots! But don’t be fooled into thinking you can plop the roots in some soil to grow them! Roots on an Air Plant serve a completely different function than “regular” plant roots.

Roots on an Air Plant work more like physical support structures than feeding systems. In fact, you can trim the roots off without damaging the plant at al lIf you purchase your Air Plants, the seller has most likely already trimmed off the roots.

Do Air Plants Need to be Watered?

Often, Air Plants growing outside your home will collect all the moisture they need from the atmosphere and occasional rains. However, during dryer seasons, they will benefit from you watering them.

You will absolutely need to water Air Plants that grow indoors, though. There are two different methods for watering Air Plants:

  • A Spray Bottle- A good spritzing every second or third day will do.
  • Submersion in Water- A 15-minute soak twice a week is common.

HELPFUL TIP: Air Plants respond best to rainwater. Tap water can have additives (like chlorine) that are harsh toward their delicate nature.

Should Air Plants be Fertilized?

Generally, you will find that most Air Plants thrive with no fertilizer at all! Sometimes the solution to growth problems is solved simply by adjusting the amount of sunlight the plant is receiving or changing your watering method or schedule. However, in cooler climates and in homes where good lighting can be scarce, you may want to add fertilizer to your plant care regime.

It’s likely that not many plant nurseries stock fertilizer specifically for Air Plants, but some do. I found a high-quality, low-cost option right on Amazon! Here is a link so you can grab some, too!

DANGER WARNING: Some fertilizers contain Zinc and/or Boron. Both of these are toxic to Air Plants! Be sure to buy fertilizer formulated for Tillandsias or Bromeliads!

Where Can You Buy Air Plants?

If you live in one of the areas where Air Plants grow naturally, you’ll be able to buy them locally at plant nurseries or even in the supermarket! If this is not an option, a simple online search will reveal a plethora of sources from which you can purchase these lovely and interesting plants.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how well they ship, just be sure to water them and get them into the light as soon as they arrive! As a precaution, before ordering online, review the return policy of the seller, and their satisfaction guarantee.

I got a variety pack of Air Plants right on Amazon! I was highly satisfied with them, and would recommend them to anyone! Just follow the convenient link below to get yours!

Can Air Plants be “Planted” in Containers?

Absolutely! Part of the fun of owning Air Plants is getting creative in their presentation! Express your style, fit Air Plants into your decorating theme, go wild! Just ask yourself a few things before committing your Air Plant to a container or display!

3 Things to Consider About Air Plant Containers 

  • Will the Air Plant receive sufficient lighting?
  • Will it be easy to water the Air plant?
  • Can the material of the container harm the Air Plant?

GOOD TO KNOW! Calcium, Rust, Copper and Cold Temperatures can kill an Air Plant! Use caution when choosing how you’ll display yours.

I hope you’ve found this article helpful, and that you are as excited as I am to add these lovely and real plants to your home or garden!

Are Air Plants Helpful to the Environment?

Air Plants have a significant effect on the microenvironment of their host, and of ecosystems where they are abundant. They hold water and decrease water input to the soil. Some Air Plants, such as lichens and mosses, have the ability to take up water very quickly. Air Plants create a significantly cooler and moister environment.

Are Air Plants Poisonous to Children or Pets?

There are no varieties of Air Plants that are toxic to humans or pets. If one gets nibbled, it will do more harm to the plant than the nibbler! 

Want to Learn More?

If you’re ready to get started with some Air plants of your own, I’ve written a complete guide for you to have the best experience possible! I invite you to read “How to Keep Air Plants Alive” by following this convenient link. Happy Gardening!