Spanish moss is a member of the pineapple family | Photo by Andy Brack

Air plants are miraculous pocket-to-palm sized plants with incredible diversity. There are more than 700 species of air plants in the world including one iconic to Southern landscapes: Spanish moss. All air plants are members of the bromeliad family and the genus tillandsia. 

Despite the name, air plants need a bit more than air to survive and thrive. These unique plants are epiphytes, meaning they do not root in soil, but grow attached to other plant life, such as trees. In their natural habitat, they get all of their nutrients from rain and any debris carried by air or clustered near it. 

Toni Reale | File Photo

Air plants don’t have a traditional root system. Instead, they absorb nutrients through trichomes, which look like tiny white hairs on the surface of their leaves, giving them their silvery-like appearance. Trichomes aren’t hairs at all. Rather, they are tiny vessels made of living and dead cells that funnel water and nutrients into the plant. The dead cells absorb and store water for future use. 

According to the Toronto Botanical Garden, the amount of trichomes varies per species depending on the environmental conditions of their native habitat. Tillandsia that look more “fuzzy” have more trichomes and are native to more desert-like environments. The fewer trichomes on a plant means that its natural habitat is more tropical. The general amount of trichomes influences the type of care that specific species of air plants require. The more fuzzy, the more sunlight it can take and the more drought-tolerant that plant can be.  

Great starter plants

Although the biology of air plants seems complex, air plants are excellent starter plants for the beginner plant parent. The most important thing to consider when adding an air plant to your collection is placement. Lighting is key, and too much light will burn the plant; too little will not provide optimal growing conditions. Air plants in general thrive in bright yet, indirect light. As a general rule, these lighting conditions can be found 3 feet to 5 feet away from a southern or western facing window. If placement is limited in your home, monitor the sunlight coming in through the panes over a few days to determine where optimal lighting would be. 

Since tillandsia do not require soil and therefore remove the need for a pot, they can be fun to style in your home. Many find hanging plant holders, glass globes, corks and even sea urchin shells to display air plants. A quick scroll on Pinterest will be sure to inspire. Keep in mind that glass globes or terrariums amplify the sunlight that reaches a plant, which means you may have to adjust the placement of your plant.

A proper watering and fertilizing schedule will ensure your air plant lives a long, healthy life. At Roadside Blooms, we give all of our air plants a weekly bath. Using room temperature tap water, we submerge our plants for thirty minutes to one hour. Then, we shake off any excess water and gently dry upside-down overnight before placing them back into their holders or containers. Because trapped water can rot the bottom of the stalk. Every other week, we spray a small amount of tillandsia-specific fertilizer into the water before dunking. This is because they are not getting the same amount of nutrients in your home as they would outside. 

Your persistent care will pay off as most air plants flower annually. Some go through a blushing phase where the plant will turn a little pink or red before it flowers. Unfortunately, after the mother tillandsia blooms, it dies, but offspring grow in its place. Don’t throw out any “dead”-looking air plants after they flower. Keep caring for them as you would if they were still alive because they are working hard to grow their “pups,” or baby plants. They are slow growers, but once you see those baby tillandsia growing underneath the leaves of the mother plant, the care was worth it.

Toni Reale is the owner of Roadside Blooms, a unique flower and plant shop in Park Circle in North Charleston. It specializes in weddings, events and everyday deliveries using nearly 100% American- and locally grown blooms. Online at 4610 Spruill Ave., Suite 102, North Charleston.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.