Love plants but hate dirt? There’s a whimsical burst of greenery that has your name on it.
A native of rain forests, deserts and swamps, the air plant — officially, Tillandsia (tuh-LAND-zee-uh) — doesn’t need soil. These plants absorb all their water and nutrients through their leaves, and they use roots only to attach themselves to surfaces that offer good sun exposure. You might find air plants perched in trees in the Everglades or tucked into rocky cliffs in South America. And, increasingly, you can see them in U.S. plant shops and garden centers.
“They’ve gotten really popular over the last five years,” says Zenaida Sengo, author of the new book “Air Plants: The Curious World of Tillandsias” (Timber Press).
Air plants can be placed on trays, displayed in your favorite bowls, even glued to wood. Their roots are for attachment only, Sengo says, and they grow just fine when properly attached with a nontoxic waterproof glue like Tilly Tacker.
But air plants can’t live on air — a popular misconception — and if their demands are simple, they’re non-negotiable.
“Lighting is key. First and foremost, do you have a spot that’s bright enough?” Sengo says. Tillandsias need as much bright, indirect light as possible. She recommends east-facing windows, where morning sun hits the plants for a few hours. West-facing windows are good too, as long as the direct sun hits late in the day when it’s not as strong.
The plants also need to be watered regularly; many growers use a combination of regular misting and occasional soaking. And air plants generally need fertilizer, which is added to water and absorbed through the leaves during spraying or soaking.
Choosing an air plant is part of the fun: Relatives of the pineapple, air plants can look like bursts of grass, miniature aloe vera plants and fluffy mosses. They flower, too, but not frequently, so Sengo suggests choosing the leaves and structure you like best; that’s what you’re going to be looking at most of the time.
Varieties frequently seen in stores, like Tillandsia stricta and T. aeranthos, can be good choices for beginners, Sengo says. Aeranthos has graceful hot pink and purple blooms and stricta has sturdy pinkish blooms.
“Those two types grow relatively quickly, and they’re easy to get to bloom,” Sengo said.