10 enchanting facts about air plants

air plants
© Konstantins Pobilojs

Plants from the Tillandsia genus are fascinating little creatures that don't need soil and don't make a lot of demands.

There is something undeniably charming about air plants ... while all plants are lovely, air plants seem especially full of personality. Freed from the constraints of roots and soil, they almost feel like pets – a comparison that is strengthened by their quirky appearance that is part plant, part creature.

Given that houseplants have scientifically proven health benefits – both physiologically and emotionally – it's no wonder that people love having them around. But potted plants aren't for everyone, like, for anyone not blessed with a green thumb, or for people living in small spaces. For us, there are (sustainably purchased) air plants – magical plants that, unlike their earthbound brethren, aren't planted, so to speak. Here's what to know about them.

1. They’ve got famous cousins
Air plant is the common name for members of the Tillandsia genus, which belongs to the Bromeliad family. Air plants’ most famous cousin from the Bromelaid family is probably the pineapple. But unlike pineapples, air plants get their water and nutrients from the air. Soil is so 1990s.

2. They have attachment issues
An air plants is what is known as an epiphyte – meaning that rather than being stuck in soil, they attach themselves to things like trees, rocks, fences, and other structures, but they do not feed off the host for survival. In trendy homes nowadays, they seem to attach themselves to sea shells and driftwood, and find shelter inside of terraria.

3. They may grow naturally in your neighborhood
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, Texas and other southern states. There are more than 600 varieties of air plants. My “mind-blown” moment of the day occurred when I found out that Spanish moss is an air plant! Of course! So are moss balls.

4. They are air-purifying workhorses
NASA research into the superpowers of houseplants revealed how they actually clear the air of toxins. One study in Brazil looked at how Tilandsia could be used to clean the air of heavy metals. “We have used plants of the bromeliad family and Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) as sentinel species to detect and absorb mercury from the air in shops contaminated by the gold trade in the Amazon,” says Paulo Machado Torres, a senior scientist at the Radioisotopes Laboratory of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. The use of plants can be uniquely useful in these environments where other kinds of remediation technology may be impractical or difficult to deploy, notes the study.

5. They have pups!
Air plants flower, and then after they produce little offsets called pups. Awww. Pups can be removed and treated as a new air plants, or can be left with mom, which will eventually lead to a cluster. Or, a litter?

6. They like dirty drinks
Since most homes don’t mimic the natural environments from where Tilandsia usually live, the plants require occasional misting and dunking. And they love dirty water full of goodies. Their favorites include water from lakes, ponds, aquaria, rain barrels and even bird baths. They do not appreciate distilled water at all; and tap water should be left out overnight to allow any chlorine, etc to dissipate.

7. It’s all about the trichomes
They work their magic thanks to little scales on their leaves called trichomes, which are like little reservoirs that grab water and nutrients from the air. The image below shows trichomes at 20 times magnification.

tilandsiaWikimedia Commons /CC BY 2.0

8. Some are fuzzy
Air plants with fuzzy leaves and a silvery or dusty surface are xeric types that come from dry climates without much rain. Their more-pronounced trichomes are able to collect ample water and store it for dry spells. If you have these kinds, they require less frequent watering and don’t mind direct sun.

9. Some hail from cloud forests
As opposed to xeric types, mesic air plants come shady moist places like rain and cloud forests. Their trichomes are less pronounced, resulting in glossier leaves They like more frequent watering.

10. They face threats
As is true with most of Mother Nature's treasures, human desire could spell doom for air plants – and many species are threatened thanks to habitat destruction and over-collecting for the horticultural trade. Thankfully, exporters now need to prove that their air plants were nursery grown rather than harvested from the wild. When purchasing, make sure your plant seller works with suppliers certified for Tillandsia exportation.

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