Have you ever gone to a coffee shop to see a strange little plant sitting out in the open that looks more octopus or squid than houseplant?
Well, these wonderful cousins of the pineapple are popular air plants, also known by their botanical name, Tillandsia. These soil-free plants come in a variety of shapes, sizes, patterns and colours, each just as odd and enchanting as the last.
But do air plants need sun to survive? Yes they do! Don’t let the name confuse you, these interesting little plants need a lot more than air to survive. While air plants love their roots free of soil to breathe air directly, they still need their fair share of sun.
Why do air plants need sun?
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.
But unlike other plants with similar growing habits, they aren’t considered parasites as they don’t harm the host they live on.
The reason air plants evolved this way was because of their ancestral plant’s desire to find a location with more sunlight than the forest floor.
In the South and Central America of their native home, air plants grow under cover of tree branches and leaves. With this natural habitat, it’s easy to see why these plants do best in bright, indirect sunlight.
Enough sun can help air plants flower (really)
When you bring a Tillandsia 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 it may be, neglecting any of its needs can still end up spelling trouble.
If you can give it plenty of bright, indirect light, 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!
While these small, intriguing plants only flower once in their lifetime, their blossoms can last from a few days all the way up to a few months! But the only way to get there is through plenty of sunlight.
They tend to prefer indirect light
Air plants can be 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 essentially 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 simply 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, so the intense rays no longer burn the leaves of any plant they touch.
This can also help other nearby plants soak up more light since it is now being distributed more evenly!
Hours of sunlight
Each species of Tillandsia has its own preferences when it comes to just how much sunlight they enjoy each day.
Air plants that are more silver in colour (like Tillandsia xerographica) originate from a high elevation environment that made it necessary to learn to live with high levels of light.
These varieties developed a higher tolerance, making them fine with a few hours of bright, direct light each day.
Many of the other kinds of air plant that didn’t evolve this way can still withstand a few hours of direct light every day (as well as a few hours of darkness), but they will need to be given support in the form of mistings two or three times each week.
As a good rule of thumb, the more light a Tillandsia gets, the more you are going to need to give it moisture.
Natural vs artificial light
As technology has grown more advanced over the past few decades, the technology 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 just as good.
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 light
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 because it will show clear discolouration on its leaves in the form of dried leaf tips, overly curled leaves, or brown, splotchy patches.
As I mentioned earlier, 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.
I know they may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I find air plants really intriguing to look at, especially when they’re displayed in creative ways like these weird and wonderful air plant jellyfish. Hope you feel encouraged to give them a go!