Air plants need the air and water they absorb to contain particles of decaying plant life, insects, and other biological elements. We don’t usually want that kind of baggage in the water we drink, but air plants need it to survive.
Air plants use dirty air and water as nutrition for growth.
Air plants’ ability to turn whatever the air currents bring their way into food relies upon photosynthesis, which you are familiar with, and another ability you may not know about. They absorb both moisture and biological matter through scale-like structures on their leaves called trichomes. After trichomes absorb water and bio-matter, they close up, resulting in the unique silver or grey appearance of many air plants. But they aren’t just for show. They serve as collectors for the materials the plant will use, through photosynthesis, to build cells and to stay healthy.
There has been a lot of interest shown in this unique ability by universities and even NASA. The consensus is that they do a good job of taking particles out of the air; certainly enough to feed themselves, but perhaps enough to help keep their caregivers healthy, too.
One scientist and his research group at the Radioisotopes Laboratory of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has published studies on the use of plants in indoor and outdoor settings which have been contaminated by mercury. They used plants of the bromeliad family and Spanish moss (also a Tillandsia) to detect and absorb mercury from the air in shops contaminated by the gold industry. Plants can be useful in environments where other approaches may be impractical. With all of the concern about environmental mercury, air plants may be a promising solution.
If you think about the kind of environment air plants originate from—places with dense foliage and high amounts of rainfall and humidity—it’s easy to see how they collect bio-matter from the air and water around them. The consistent rainfall carries with it biological elements from the tree canopy, as well as from other plants and animal life. When scientists study air plants in the wild, they often find whole ecosystems living on and around the plants.
Air plant care tips:
When you care for air plants, it’s important to emulate this kind of environment. The water you use to mist and dunk them should carry bio-matter, such as that found in lakes, rain barrels, or other natural water sources. You can store this up in a rain bucket, dip it from a local stream, or even add some birdbath water to the mix.
Once you secure your water, you will use it to mist the plants on a regular basis and/or submerge them during the week. Check out our air plant care video, or download instructions for the specific plant you’ve adopted.
When caring for air plants, put away the water filtration pitcher and the distilled water bottle—water like this can actually remove vital nutrition from the plants.
To be clear, we’re not suggesting that you use muddy water, or water that has a bad smell, because you want your air plants to be a good fit with the interior of your home or office. If you’re not sure where to find some water that is teaming with a little extra “life,” just ask any young child in the neighborhood—they’ll point you to the best puddles, streams, and other places to gather the water that will make your air plants thrive.
And, if you really can’t get water filled with microorganisms, be sure to spray your plants with fertilizer once a month, after they’ve been misted or soaked. This will help them thrive, bloom, and grow pups.