All about air plants

Air plants make great decorative features in the garden.

Air plants are one of the easiest plants to grow at home because there’s almost zero effort in taking care of them. Unlike succulents and micro-plants in terrariums and small pots, air plants are fuss-free and grow well in the humid Malaysian weather. It absorbs moisture from the surroundings and makes a pretty centrepiece on the dining table or bedside drawer.

Unusual, unique and easy to care for

My children are blessed to grow up in the presence of a lawn with bountiful greens. My Chinese mother-in-law, an avid gardener, believes that each and every growth around the house symbolises wealth. Thus, she had several plants that symbolised prosperity. These greens enlivened and freshened the outlook of her compound.

From her parents’ love for nature, she learned the tips and tricks on how to maintain a healthy growing garden. From fertilising to watering to understanding how much direct sun a plant needs, her love for these greens became proof of her time and effort in the garden.

One particular space is reserved for her latest adoration — air plants. For the uninitiated, it is an odd term to refer to this particular family of plants. But they do exist. Hung on trees and available in different shapes and sizes, my mother-in-law has been collecting these plants for years now. When I first heard about them, I was intrigued. What sort of plant is an air plant?

The air plants

To me, they do not look as fascinating or interesting as the other plants in her garden. But they were enthralling. By far one of the most unique types of plants, air plants are one of nature’s many curiosities.

Just like the name suggests, these plants grow on air. They require no soil at all. Just plop them in their centrepiece and they’ll thrive on their own.

Looking like an alien lifeform with tentacles, her first encounter with the air planta was in Thailand. Intrigued, she bought a few to try them out. Little did she know, she would learn to adore them to the point of collecting these cute things.

The challenges that these plants entail are different from those of normal plants. Yet, she chose to nurture and love them.
Tillandsia spp is the scientific name for this plant. These air plants are epiphytes, which means they thrive on other plants, usually on tree branches.

Those with silver foliage tend to be the most drought-tolerant; greener types dry out faster. Most species produce attractive, tubular or funnel-shaped flowers, too.

The benefits of growing an air plant

Like many other plants, air plants hold great benefits. They are an ideal plant to remove toxins present in the surrounding air.

According to one study, air plants were found to absorb mercury from the air.

At the same time, they have been shown to remove airborne contaminants while also improving the air quality.

Since air plants do not need soil, keeping the plants is fairly easy on one’s budget. Due to their nature, these air plants make great indoor plants too, especially for those staying in high-rise buildings. All they really need is a support structure to grow on.

Overall, air plants, according to my mother-in-law, make great decorative plants as they are easy to care for, do not require a complicated equipment, and best of all, they enhance the features of a garden.

An air plant may flower — but only once in its lifetime.

Tender, loving care

When I asked my mother-in-law about the practise of caring for these alien-like plants, she answered that time and effort are of utmost importance.

Like any other plant, they thrive better when they can feel the owners’ love.

Emphasising fertilisation, my mother said she would mist-spray the air plants with fertiliser every two weeks. “But if you can do it every week, they’ll grow faster,” she said.

According to her, these plants require regular fertilising to grow bigger. She also waters them every evening, “To keep them fresh and clean, just like how we bathe regularly.

“These plants love the air. But they do not like direct sunlight. They prefer a cooler shade, for example, under the shade of a tree,” she added.

Overall, she said that air plants are some of the easiest plants to care for. My mother said as long as we are hard-working to watch over them, they’ll keep us happy, just as we do for them.

Propagating the plants

Propagating air plants are similar to succulents. “Just pluck the roots with its babies. Put them in a different space, and that’s all. The only difference is that air plants grow from their roots, and succulents from their leaves,” she said.

Asked about the perfect time to propagate them, she shared, “It’s just like biscuits. If you keep tearing them off when they are not ready, they will become smaller and smaller, causing them to crumble.”

To propagate an air plant, we have to wait until the baby is at least one-third the size of the mother plant. While holding the mother plant, gently pull the base of the baby plant. Be careful not to pull the leaves. If it’s ready to be separated from its mother, the baby will come off easily, without any damage.