Do Air Plants Need Light? Requirements Explained

It is a common misconception that air plants survive on air alone. Although necessary for their nutrition and water requirements, there are other conditions vital for healthy growth.

Correct humidity, temperature, and lighting conditions ensure a thriving plant able to bloom and reproduce.

Different species of air plants have different lighting requirements. The native habitat and climate designates the amount and type of light each plant needs to thrive in and around our homes. Air plants appreciate copious amounts of light, preferably indirect and filtered.

As a general rule of thumb, smooth green plants need less light. Those with leaves of lighter green and silver prefer as much indirect light, and some direct sunlight.

What are Air Plants

Air plant is the common name for the Tillandsia; the largest genus of the Bromeliad (pineapple) family.

They are unique; they don’t need soil to grow, instead using the tiny, hair-like cells in their leaves to absorb moisture and nutrition from the air.

The trichomes store water until the plant needs it, they also protect the leaves from intense sunlight.

Although air plants have small roots, their only function is to anchor to a substrate. They are not parasitic and drain nothing from the host.

Tillandsia are seen attached to many objects, depending on their native habitat and climate, including trees, rocks, cliffs, and cacti.

How Much Light do Air Plants Need

There are two-primary types of air plants that we use to decorate our homes; mesic and xeric. They are so-named due to their native climate and lighting conditions. Replicating these is the key to growing successful and healthy air plants at home.

Mesic Plants

tillandsia bulbosa
T. Bulbosa

Mesic plants are identified by their smooth, relatively thick leaves that are usually shades of dark green.

Their native habitat is usually in forests, where they grow near the base of trees. They enjoy the shade created by the leaf canopies, and thrive in the humidity of South American rainforests.

They are versatile plants that, around the home, manage well in lower lighting areas while also tolerating bright, indirect sunlight.

Mesic air plants should never be left in harsh, direct sunlight; their leaves may scorch, eventually killing the plant.

Xeric Plants

tillandsia xerographica

Plants native to xeric climates are easier to identify; they usually have more elongated leaves than mesic air plants.

They have an abundance of trichomes which give the plants a fuzzy, light green/silver appearance.

Xeric plants grow in arid, desert-like regions where they are exposed to high temperatures and exceptional amounts of bright sunlight.

Xeric species grown at home have much greater light requirements; they need 12-hours of diffused light every day. They also have a high tolerance for light and thrive if left outdoors periodically, to soak up a couple of hours of morning or afternoon sun.

They don’t tolerate low-lighting conditions well. All air plants need light to thrive, without it their color fades, and they eventually die. It is possible for Tillandsia flourish in darker rooms with the help of artificial lighting.

Air Plants and Artificial Light

Living and working in buildings with few windows, or those that receive little light, doesn’t mean that growing air plants is out of the question.

Artificial light is a sufficient replacement; some species thrive below fluorescent light.

Providing the area is illuminated and bright for much of the day, Tillandsias aren’t fussy about the light source.

Where to Position Air Plants for the Best Light

do air plants need light

Air plants will thrive within 3-4 feet of any north or south facing window; they achieve the best and most intense sunlight throughout the day.

Ensure that direct light is diffused before reaching the plants; sunlight filtered through tree’s branches is perfect.

Although east and west-facing windows receive less sun, artificial light is a perfect supplement.

Don’t be perturbed if the spot you’ve picked out to display your plants is in a dark corner of the room. Leave a light on nearby regularly, also, send them on vacation a couple of times a week. Put them in a sunny position, or place them in a sunny but sheltered position in the yard to grab a couple of hours of early morning or late afternoon sun.

Only do this if you’re sure of no rain; Tillandsia don’t tolerate water well, not unless they are going to be thoroughly dried.

Can Air Plants Get Too Much Light?

Too much of light is harmful, especially if it’s direct. Air plants have a unique way of letting you know they have had excessive light.

The heat from the sun depletes all the moisture and scorches the leaves; They become brittle and brown, without water and removal from the sun, the plant will surely die.

At the other end of the spectrum, air plants with too little light won’t thrive, grow, or reproduce; They too will die.

Typically, silvery air plants with more trichomes tolerate and enjoy most light. The tiny cells shield the plant from excessive light and protect the leaves.

Air plants with fewer trichomes (the darker green species) manage with less light, and cannot handle direct sun.

Do Air Plants in Terrariums get Enough Light?

tillandsia terrarium

Most air plant species fair well in terrariums and bottle gardens, providing they have open sides to promote good air flow.

Although the plants inside still have the same light requirements, always avoid leaving the display in direct sun. The glass magnifies the rays, creates excessive heat inside, drying out the moisture and burning the leaves.

Green glass terrariums struggle to receive enough bright light, so the temptation to sit them on a south-facing windowsill increases; Don’t, this causes more harm than good.

Try sitting the display close to a fluorescent light source; better still, transfer it to a clear glass bottle.

Final Thoughts

Light is every bit as vital to the existence of an air plant as food and water.

As a general rule of thumb, all species need several hours of bright light every day.

Some Tillandsia, such as the King of Air Plants, the xerographica, tolerate direct sunshine well, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Rather than risk the health of your plants, stick to indirect, filtered light.

A hour a week in a sheltered spot in the early morning sun is the perfect Tillandsia treat.

Air plants complement any décor, even offices and basements, when minimum natural light is easily replaced with artificial lighting.

Anthony Marsh
Anthony Marsh is a writer with deep roots in the soil of western New Hampshire. His first experiences with gardening were at the age of 10 where his parents allowed him to plant and cultivate his first vegetable garden. Twenty years later he’s continued with his passion for gardening and actively rescues abandoned plant life.

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