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Air plants are strange but beautiful relatives of the pineapple

Updated on October 11, 2015

Air plant photos

Close up on Air Carnation flowers
Close up on Air Carnation flowers
Spanish Moss
Spanish Moss
An arrangement of various types of Air Plant
An arrangement of various types of Air Plant
Tillandsia aeranthos growing on a dead tree in Tenerife
Tillandsia aeranthos growing on a dead tree in Tenerife

Plants that grow without needing soil

The plants in the genus Tillandsia are often called "Air Plants" because they grow in the wild in trees and on rocks and are not dependent on having any access to soil. Some species like T. aeranthos, which is commonly grown on Tenerife and in many other subtropical and tropical parts of the world, are also known as "Carnations of the air."

The Tillandsia species are actually epiphytes meaning that they grow in trees, which they need as supports, but they are not parasites and take no food from their hosts. Air plants get all that they need via the leaves which absorb moisture and nutrients from the air and also photosynthesise like all green plants.

Spanish Moss

They come from Central and Southern America and some of the Southern States and one species, the Spanish Moss (T.usneoides) is a common site in Florida, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi. Because of the creepy Gothic look it gives to places it is is growing in it often features in locations for horror films and television programmes. I am sure you have seen movies with this weird plant showing up in scenes set in swamplands in America's deep south.

It is not a moss but a flowering plant although it does share the same habit and appearance as the Old Man's Beard lichens (Usnea spp), which also festoon tree trunks and their branches and hang down from them.

Air plants as houseplants

Many species of Tillandsia are sold as exotic houseplants and distributed worldwide. They can be grown attached to driftwood or some other natural object and require very little care. Some types have pretty flowers, hence the "carnation" name they have been given.

Tillandsias reproduce by seed and also by pieces getting carried by the wind or by birds to new and suitable hosts.

The Tillandsias are actually related to the Pineapple (Ananas comosus) and are in the Bromeliad family (Bromeliaceae). These weird plants with amazing growing habits are in the same plant group as a commonly eaten and delicious fruit that we all know. It is incredible how they have evolved to colonise places other plants cannot grow, They are aptly named air plants because they grow in the air.

Easy to grow air plants


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    • Bard of Ely profile image

      Steve Andrews 8 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      I am glad to hear you have one, James! Thanks for posting!

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 8 years ago from Chicago

      I have an air plant in my kitchen. It was given to me as a gift a few days ago. And now this! Coincidence? I think not!