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Air Plants: Classification, Types, Tips

Air plants are unique plants that survive the wild by absorbing water and light. Unlike most plants, they don’t require soil. They also have a peculiar appearance. The leaves of an air plant resemble alien tentacles or octopus limbs. Air plants are some of the best low-maintenance houseplants. 

This article describes the classifications and types of air plants. You’ll discover how an air plant survives and the various ways to care for air plants.  

Related Read: Terrarium Ideas To Grow A Piece Of Nature, Apartment Gardening.

What are air plants? 

tillandsia air plant
Photo by ProFlowers on Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

Air plants are members of the Tillandsias1, a part of the Bromeliad family. Swedish Botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) named the genus after botanist Dr. Elias Tillandz (1640–1693). They are native to tropical and subtropical North and South America.

Air plants got their name from their features. They have short, wiry roots used to attach themselves to cliff faces, branches, and even electricity lines as long as it is not soil. 

Yes! You guessed right! Air plants do not need soil to stay alive and grow. They are a variety of Epiphytic plants, a group of plants that grow on any platform except soil. They also do not have parasitic qualities. Air plants thrive with the nutrients and moisture they get from the air. Their roots are mainly in attaching themselves to a platform. 

The answer is no! air plants do not have parasitic qualities. Air plants thrive with the nutrients and moisture they get from the air. Their roots are mainly in attaching themselves to a platform. 

They have specialized cells on their leaves called trichomes. Trichomes allow efficient absorption of water from the air or rain. In their native habitats, air plants can grow up to 7 feet but can grow up to 12 inches as house plants.

In the wild, you will find Spanish moss draping on trees in the southeastern United States and ball moss draping on telephone wires and fences in Central America. There are larger species like the sky plant, Tillandsia bulbosa, Tillandsia capitata, and Tillandsia xerographica

Classification of air plants

Photo by Max Letek on Unsplash.

We have to discuss the classification of air plants before discussing the types of air plants. There are three classifications of air plants, namely:

1. Mesic air plants 

Mesic air plants are native to humid regions like South American rainforests. Plants in this category prefer to grow in a canopy of trees, only receiving filtered sunlight. They do not like direct sunlight. A mesic air plant has deeper green leaves and a smoother texture. Some examples of mesic air plants are Tillandsia Bulbosa and Tillandsia ionantha.    

2. Xeric air plants 

Xeric air plants are native to desert-like climates and prefer to grow on rocks. Their leaves have high numbers of trichomes, giving them a fuzzy appearance. Xeric plants also have broader leaves. They have a larger surface area to absorb enough moisture and bright light. Examples of Xeric plants are Xerographica, Cirinata, and Harrisii. 

3. Hydric air plant 

Hydric air plants prefer wet climate regions. They thrive under a good amount of rainfall and often have dense canopies. You’ll find them growing in water or near water in the Amazon River Delta.  

Types of Air Plants

Before we delve into the types of air plants, note that hydric plants are difficult to buy commercially. You are more likely to purchase a xeric or mesic air plant than a hydric plant.

1. Tillandsia ionantha

tillandsia ionantha
Photo by John Robert McPherson on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

Tillandsia ionantha is one of the most popular species of air plants because it is difficult to kill. It is a beautiful plant, also known as the Sky plant. Tillandsia ionantha has silver-green leaves that grow up to 3 inches long and less than an inch wide. 

It is native to Mexico, Nicaragua, South America, and Costa Rica. It is a flowering air plant that blooms purple or lavender, with spike-like petals and yellow stamens.

2. Tillandsia caput-medusae ( Octopus Plant) 

Tillandsia caput-medusae is named after Medusa, a Greek female monster with snakes as her hair. People also refer to it as the octopus plant. It is in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. It blooms tube-shaped blue-red flowers at the start of the summer season. The octopus plant prefers temperature zones ranging from 18C to 30C or 65C to 80C

3. Tillandsia capitata 

Tillandsia capitata is a velvety light green plant native to Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Cuba, and Honduras. It grows on trees, cliff faces, and canyons along riverbanks. This air plant can grow up to 10 inches tall and 10 inches wide. It grows in a rosette shape and produces purple flowers. The leaves turn yellow when they receive excess direct sunlight.  

4. Tillandsia bulbosa ( Bulbous Air Plant) 

tillandsia bulbosa
Photo by Bocabroms on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

Tillandsia bulbosa has one of the most unique appearances among the air plant species. It has a bulbous base and tentacle-like leaves. You’ll find this peculiar plant in Southern Florida, southern Mexico, and the West Indies. 

The mesic plant has dark green leaves that turn violet and red when it blooms once in its lifetime. Tillandsia bulbosa grows up to 7 inches, surviving under partial shade. 

There are two species of the bulbous air plant - T.bulbosa guatemala and T.bulbosa belize. The former is a smaller air plant with dark green leaves, while the latter has bigger and light green leaves.    

5. Tillandsia aeranthos bergeri 

tillandsia aeranthos
Photo by jacilluch on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

T.aeranthos bergeri is native to the cloudy areas of Central and South America. It is a fast-growing plant with gray-green, narrow, and tapering leaves. It blooms for a few weeks during the summer season. The plant is also called Mad Pupper. It grows up to 10 inches tall and thrives in temperature zones between 65F to 80F. 

6. Tillandsia cacticola 

It is also a rare air plant with fuzzy, silver-green leaves. It blooms a long-lasting lavender inflorescence, which eventually produces a white flower. Tillandsia cacticola has a lot of trichomes, so it prefers bright light and survives droughty environments better than other plants. It has a maximum length of 10 inches. 

7. Tillandsia stricta x recurvifolia (Cotton Candy)

tillandia stricta recurvifolia
Photo by Timm Stolten on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

Scientists produced this hybrid plant from the crossing of the mother plants T.stricta and T.recurvifolia. It turns a shade of pink inflorescence before blooming lilac flowers. It has similar features to T.houston but has thinner leaves and a softer structure. It is a fast-growing air plant, with the leaves growing up to 10 cm long. 

How do they survive? 

Since air plants do not require soil for survival, where do they get their nutrients? Air plants rely on air, water, and light to get the nutrients required for survival. Although they grow on other living organisms like trees and rocks, they do not steal nutrients from their host. 

Instead, they capture moisture and nutrients from the air through tiny vessels called trichomes. Air plants use their roots to attach themselves to a surface. They don’t use it to absorb nutrients like other plants that require soil.  

When the plants are not getting enough water, the tips of the leaves begin to curl inwards and turn brown. However, if it’s consuming too much water, it starts to look soggy. 

How to care for air plants  

Tillandsia air plants thrive indoors, making them excellent house plants. They are easy to care for and maintain. The colorful species also make for great home decoration. Here are some air plant care tips: 

Provide adequate sunlight.

hanging air plant
Photo by Cherus on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

Since its only source of nutrition is light.  As houseplants, air plants do not have as much access to direct sunlight as they do in the wild. It is best to keep your air plant near an adequate light source. 

You can place it 3 to 5 feet away from your window. Do not subject your plant to direct sun because it can be harmful. Not all air plants thrive under direct sunlight. Too much sun can burn their leaves. 

So, keep your plant under a shade to get indirect light if you're keeping it outdoors. You can also keep air plants near an artificial light source. Bright light sources work well as long as the plants are close enough.

Water air plants at least once a week.  

Air plants love water. It is one of the ways they get their nutrients, unlike other house plants with soil as a primary nutrient source. Without enough moisture, your plants' leaves will be curled and shriveled. Also, excess watering will cause your air plant to rot. 

Watering air plants might seem tricky, but it's not. You can water your plants by soaking them face down in a water bowl for 10-20 minutes. Ensure you shake the plant to remove excess water because it can cause your plant to rot. 

The best action is to soak your plant in the morning and leave it to dry for about 4 hours before returning it to its vase/platform. Don't leave it inside water for an extended period. 

Another watering method to use is the dunking method. Dunk the plant into water several times and gently shake the excess off. Remember not to submerge the bloom and flower because it will damage it. 

Also, be careful with the type of water you use for your air plant care. Avoid using water from sources that might contain chemicals. When watering air plants with tap water, let the water sit for a while to dissipate any chemicals. Using rainwater, bottled water, spring water, pond water, or aquarium water is best. Don’t use distilled water to water air plants. 

Maintain temperature and humidity.

air plant close up
Photo by feey on Unsplash.

An air plant only thrives when it receives bright light and absorbs enough water and humidity. Ensure your home is warm and humid enough so they don’t dry out. Don’t expose them to cold drafts or winter temperatures. 

To ensure your plant has enough humidity, don’t place it near heating or cooling vents. You can just set a humidifier close by or grow them in humid areas of your house, i.e., bathroom, kitchen, and laundry room.  

Ensure adequate air circulation. 

Air plants need air to survive. Ensure you have clean air circulation in your home before keeping air plants. They need enough air to dry for a few hours before you return them to their container. Also, don’t keep them in enclosed containers because it restricts the air they get. 

Regularly prune. 

Most tillandsia air plants do not need pruning. They are monocarpic plants that grow to a mature stage, flower, set seed, and die. During their lifecycle process, there is new growth at the base. You can prune the mother plant when it dies, leaving the younger air plant to reach maturity. You can also propagate air plants by gently separating the offshoots from the mother plant. 

Display ideas for air plants.

There are many creative ways to display air plants in your home. There are many designs of glass globes to display your air plant, regardless of its species. They are slow growers, so you don’t have to worry about changing their containers to accommodate their growth often. A macrame hanger, spiral table holder, a tree stump, and sea shells also make for an excellent display.  


Air plants are great for apartment therapy. They are easy to care for because they do not require soil or frequent watering. They have more creative display options than other plants. You can purchase them at plant stores. Some even sell wholesale air plants. 

Remember to avoid placing your air plant under the glare of the full sun. Also, completely dry the air plant before returning it to its vase.


Crawford , B. (n.d.). Air Plants—A Trendy Plant With a Long Story! (Rutgers NJAES). Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Photo by feey on Unsplash.
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