Airplants live on air, don’t they?


This has to be the thing I hear most when I am out and about selling plants. Not directed at me, but at a partner, mum, friend, dog…I work quite hard not grinding my teeth, thinking of the many plants consigned to a dusty, crispy death. I’ve been told about plants owned for years that haven’t changed at all.

They’re living, they’re supposed to grow, flower and produce wee airplants. If it hasn’t changed for years, it is likely flatlining or dead.

So how did we get here, with people thinking that a living thing can exist on only air? I can’t, you can’t, nor can your partner’s mum’s friend’s dog.

Names & fridge magnets

First problem is the name. But we don’t think rubber plants live on rubber, or spider plants on spiders, do we? Fewer people would have swiss cheese plants if they had to shovel gruyere into their pots.

Secondly, when they were last popular in the 80s and 90s air plants were often sold in packets on spinners like birthday cards. You don’t choose a kitten from a spinner.

Thirdly, they are often sold as ornaments: in a glass globe, stuck to a shell, as a fridge magnet. And we’ don’t water or feed fridge magnets, let alone make sure they have access to daylight. It’s like buying a shrub in shrink wrap or hamster earrings; it can be ok but you do need to work at it more.

In the air, not on air

The key word here is plant, not air.

So why are they called airplants? While we’re here, why are rubber plants, spider plants and swiss cheese plants so-called? We’ll deal with the others in a different post on names, but let’s get to the dirty on airplants (or air plants, is there a space? or even a hyphen? who knows).

Air plants describes a bunch of plants that live without putting roots in the ground (epiphytes). Mostly their roots just anchor them to their support. Could be a tree, rock, house, windmill made of shells. They live up in the air, not on air. Plants like orchids, fens, forest cacti do this; as well as Tillandsia which is what airplants are called when they have their suits on.

Like all plants, Tillandsia need four main things:

  • light

  • water

  • food

  • space & air circulation

Some of these things are difficult to reconcile with being a fridge magnet. But all of them are easy to give to your plant.

In the wild

How does the average airplant deal with this stuff out in the wild, on a tree or a rock? A lot of them come from rain or cloud forests where the air is really humid.

They get light from the sun, but the amount of light depends on how high up in the forest they are, and what is above them; the higher up they are, the more light they get. Water they will get from rain and the humid atmosphere. This will be more humid than your bathroom. Food comes from particles dissolved in that water.

 A small  Tillandsia  having a soak in a glass. No, it isn’t gin.
A small Tillandsia having a soak in a glass. No, it isn’t gin.

At home

Growing plants is all about creating the same niche in your home that they’ve got in the wild. How do you do this?

  • All plants need to be able to ‘see the sky’; put you head where you plan on putting the plant – can you see the sky from there? If not, don’t put the plant there. The more silvery your Tillandsia the more bright light it will need.

  • Water using a bowl of water (soak for 20 minutes once a week or fortnight), run under the cold tap, or pop in the shower on cold for a bit. You can spray but it is better and easier to soak. The more silvery it is the less water it needs.

  • Plants like people grow better and faster with food, so put a couple of drops of liquid feed in the bowl of water. Don’t feed at the same rate as for other houseplants, they don’t need much.

  • Space and air circulation. They are prone to rot if they don’t dry out properly after watering, or if they sit in water for a long time. So make sure they drain well (roots upwards is best) and get plenty of moving air where they live. If you grow in a bauble or terrarium, make sure the plants are completely dry before they go in.

  Tillandsia tectorum  very silvery, needs sun and minimal water and food. Grows very slowly, but is gorgeous.
Tillandsia tectorum very silvery, needs sun and minimal water and food. Grows very slowly, but is gorgeous.


Treat your air plant like a plant and remember the four magic ingredients: light, water, food and air circulation. The more silvery-coloured plants are adapted to live in warmer, sunny places so need more light, less water and lots of air circulation to stop them rotting. Don’t buy kittens in packets.

Published by mercyjm

Living in Kent, I am a qualified horticulturist, currently self-employed as a gardener Herne Bay & Whitstable areas; I sell houseplants and airplants at markets locally.

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