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Do air plants need sun?

You’ll know, if you’ve seen them growing out in the open, that air plants (Tillandsia) don’t need soil. But do air plants need sun to survive, or can they get by on air alone?

air plants in rope hangers

They may be low-maintenance, but these quirky cousins of the pineapple definitely aren’t no-maintenance. Air plants do need sun (a few hours a day of bright indirect sunlight) to survive.

Air plants prefer indirect sun

air plant in sun
No soil – but air plants need sun and water to thrive

Plants of the Tillandsia genus are epiphytes, meaning they like to grow on the surface of another plant (typically a tree) rather than directly in the soil.

Unlike other plants with similar growing habits, they aren’t considered parasites as they don’t harm their host.

Air plants evolved this way because of their ancestral plant’s desire to find somewhere with more sunlight than the forest floor.

In their native South and Central America, air plants naturally grow under cover of tree branches and leaves.

Given this natural habitat bathed in dappled sun, indoor air plants thrive best in bright, indirect sunlight.

Air plant varieties and hours of sun

Every species of air plant has its own preferences when it comes to how much sun they want to soak up each day.

Air plants that are more silver in colour (like Tillandsia xerographica) originate from high elevation environments, with more exposure to sunlight.

These varieties have developed a higher light tolerance, making them fine with a few hours of bright, direct sunlight each day.

Many other air plants that didn’t evolve this way can also withstand a few hours of direct sun a day, but will need misting two or three times a week to boost humidity.

As a good rule of thumb, the more sunlight a Tillandsia gets, the more moisture you’ll need to give it.

Can air plants survive in low light?

If you’re looking for a plant for a dark, shady or dimly lit corner, air plants aren’t the best choice. These plants really need a brightly lit spot out of direct sun. 

While an air plant may survive for a while in low light, it isn’t likely to thrive. Very dark and shady spots simply aren’t their natural habitat. 

In the spirit of ‘right plant, right place’, you’re far better off choosing a plant that will be quite happy in low light, such as a parlour palm (Chamaedora elegans) or sweetheart plant (Philodendron scandens).

Enough sun can help air plants flower (really)

When you bring an air plant into your home, the best thing you can do for it is replicate the conditions it would normally experience outdoors.

As hardy and resilient as an air plant may be, neglecting any of its needs can end up spelling trouble.

If you can give it plenty of bright, indirect sunlight, high humidity, and water on a schedule (or whenever it signals that it’s thirsty), you may be lucky enough to see your air plant bloom.

air plant flower
A pink quill (Tillandsia cyanea) air plant in flower – what a beauty!

While the plants only flower once in their lifetime, their blossoms can last from a few days all the way up to a few months!

Making sure your air plant gets plenty of sun is a must to encourage blooming.

Creating the right light conditions

As mentioned above, air plants are particular about the kind of sunlight they prefer. Direct light, with the sun beaming straight at them, can be a little too much.

Indirect light, where sunlight floods the area they are in without shining on them, usually suits them better.

The plants of this genus are covered in trichomes, which are a lot like tiny scales that act like water reservoirs. This textured surface makes it easy for air plants to grab moisture from the air around them.

When a Tillandsia receives direct sun for long periods of time, the harsh rays evaporate the moisture in the trichomes, drying out the plant.

TOP TIP – One of the easiest ways to turn direct light into indirect light in your home is by adding sheer white curtains.

If the perfect spot for your air plant is right in front of a south-facing window, a sheer curtain will diffuse the sunlight coming in. This will prevent the intense rays from burning the leaves of any plant they touch.

This can also help other nearby plants soak up more sunlight since it is now being distributed more evenly.

Natural sunlight vs artificial light

As technology has advanced over the past few decades, the tech surrounding plants and gardening has too.

Artificial lights that mimic the brightness and beneficial aspects of the sun have been at the forefront of this, so plants can survive by soaking up artificial light rather than natural.

In the case of air plants, natural sunlight is always the easiest thing to provide because it’s free and doesn’t require any costly bulbs or set-up.

However, if your home doesn’t get enough sun to properly care for a Tillandsia, fabricated lights can be a good substitute.

Any variety of full spectrum fluorescent bulb will do the trick, and these can be as affordable or as expensive as you would like them to be.

Make sure that your air plants are within 3 feet of the light, but no closer than 6 inches, to ensure they get enough but not too much light.

How to tell if your air plant is getting enough sun

There are a couple of telltale signs your air plant will display to let you know if it wants more – or perhaps less – light.

As you first start out with these plants, it can be hard to tell if your Tillandsia is looking for more because it will do this by growing much slower than usual – something that’s hard to notice when you’re a beginner.

It’s easier to determine if your plant is getting too much direct light. It will show clear discolouration on its leaves in the form of dried leaf tips, overly curled leaves, or brown, splotchy patches.

You don’t need to relocate your air plant as long as you supplement it with higher humidity or more frequent mistings to stop it drying out.

They may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I find air plants intriguing to look at, especially displayed in creative ways like these weird and wonderful air plant jellyfish. Hope you’re encouraged to give them a go!

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