Have you ever grown one of these? They are unusual, fairly low-maintenance houseplants that are easy to keep happy indoors. The hardest part about their care is getting used to their unique needs.
How can they exist without soil?
They are epiphytes, meaning that in nature they grow on other plants, usually on tree branches, but unlike mistletoe, a parasite (for Christmas kissing!), air plants take no nutrients from their host, looking almost otherworldly in the way they grow with no soil at all. Their leaves can look a bit like alien tentacles or like the appendages of an exotic sea creature, and the roots are used only for anchorage, to hold onto a tree or rockface in nature. They have become quite popular over the years, and there are online nurseries specialising in air plants, particularly the more unusual types.
They’re a bit different from the indoor plants you might be used to, with narrow, strap-shaped or lance-like leaves that grow in a rosette pattern with new growth appearing from the middle. Some have coloured foliage too, those that are silvery tend to be the most drought-tolerant; greener types dry out faster, and most produce attractive, tubular or funnel-shaped flowers.
Air plants are native to the West Indies, Mexico, and much of Central America and South America. In the United States, they grow in California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, amongst other southern US states.
Air Plant Care
They are easy to care for once you get to grips with their needs. You don’t have to worry about potting them, and for the greatest effect can be attached to a piece of sun-bleached wood, or suspended in glass globes. You can glue them in place using Liquid Nails or a Glue gun, and if using the latter, let the glue cool slightly, before attaching your plant so it doesn't burn it. Don't use super glue because it may kill the plant.
They do still need a certain amount of water and light, plus the right temperatures, just like any other houseplant - they only bloom once in their lifetime, so once the flower dries out, you can snip it off to promote new growth (or ‘pups’). You can then separate the pups from the mother plant or allow them to grow where they are, where the mother plant will eventually die and the new pups will take over.
Air plants absorb all of their water and nutrients through their leaves, and the best way to water them is to submerge them in water for 30 – 60 minutes. In their native habitats, they get what they need from high humidity and plentiful rainfall, but in your home, you’ll need to water your air plants on average about once a week. There are many different species of air plants, and they can all be watered by submerging. After dunking them for 20-30 mins, gently shake off any excess moisture, then set each air plant upside down on a clean cloth or paper towel to drain for an hour or two, even putting them in front of a small fan on a low setting with help them dry off. Any moisture pooling at the base of the leaves may cause rot, so this drying step is critical.
I admit I always thought that air plants were misted with a spray bottle for watering, and misting a few times a week can supplement your soaking routine, but does not usually supply enough consistent moisture on its own. This technique can come in handy, however, for plants attached to a support or for ones in bloom.
Fussy about Water
Rainwater for watering is best, but pond or aquarium water will work if you have either because they all contain some nutrients. Regular tap water is okay, too, but first let it sit in an open container overnight, allowing any chlorine to dissipate, and for the water to reach room temperature. Too much chlorine causes leaf tips to turn brown. Softened or distilled water shouldn’t be used, as the salts in softened water can damage the leaves, and the latter is too pure to provide any nutrients.
Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man.