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Gardening upside down

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How about some gardening that requires no digging, no weeding, and no mess? Welcome to the world of air plants. By Madeleine Boos.

Photo by Art Gray for Airplantman Designs

There are many reasons to use interior plants: air purification, to foster a sense of well-being, and simply for aesthetics. But what about just as downright decoration?

Air plants can be attached to walls, suspended on wire from the ceiling, paired with kitschy trinkets, and used as party favors. Not only does it look cool, but this upside-down gardening is about as low-maintenance as you can get.

Tillandsia on cholla log
Photo by Madeleine Boos

Air plants get their name from appearing to live solely on air. They take water and nutrients through their leaf system and use their roots like anchors to hold onto trees, rocks or other natural surfaces.

Also called Tillandsia, air plants are part of the Bromeliad family – those plants native to the tropical Americas. They come in many species, sizes, leaf colors and flower colors.  Most of them flower annually and are in color from two weeks to a couple of months a year.

Tillandsia thrive in a tropical climate. But according to Dr. Mark Dimmitt of the Center for Sonoran Desert Studies, Tillandsia ehlersiana and hildae are best suited for our arid desert climate.

And the best part? There is no weeding, no digging, and no mess.

Josh Rosen is a landscape architect and creator of Airplantman Designs based in Santa Monica, CA. He has created a series of aesthetically pleasing vessels and frames for air plant display. Both the frames and the vessels encourage air circulation and ease of watering, vital to air plant health.

See section on air plant care at the end of this article.

Photo by Josh Rosen (aka Air Plant Man)

Photo by Art Gray for Airplantman Designs

Having lived in Tucson as a student at the U of A, Rosen understands the desert climate.

“For airplants in Tucson, use species that are adapted to arid climates such as xerographica or tectorum and avoid direct sun and frost.  Arid species will typically have grey leaves that reflect sunlight.” Catch up with Airplantman Josh Rosen on his facebook page.

Architect Darci Hazelbaker of HA|RU remembers discovering air plants in the tropical deep South. “The first time I visited my husband Dale’s parents in southern Florida we were strolling through their woods and the ball moss and southern needleleaf were everywhere, anchored to every branch and limb of the old live oak trees.  I became infatuated with their ability to survive without soil. I would bring a couple back with me to the desert and hang them in our bathroom to soak up the steam from our shower.”

Taxonomy of Air Plants: Baileyi, Stricta Rio, Harrisii, Caput Medusae, and Andreana
Photo courtesy of HA|RU

“Now we have our air plants neatly cataloged in our kitchen near the window so they receive plenty of indirect light. They are excellent plants if you don’t have a lot of horizontal surfaces for pots, if your thumb isn’t so green, or if you just want to be creative in how you display them. The possibilities are endless,” says Darci. (See 3Story’s profile of HA|RU in issue 3.)

When the new Habitat for Humanity headquarters opens in Tucson in the Spring, it will feature a lobby with wall mounted powder coated steel panels holding Tillandsia. Hanging from the ceiling from cables will be suspended tubular steel planters also filled with Tillandsia.

Why air plants? Jason Isenberg, owner of REALM, which is doing the interior and exterior landscaping, says simply: “They’re such cool plants. If you neglect them, they’ll deal with it.” A spritz with water a couple of times a week is sufficient to keep them thriving, he says.

How to use them

 1. Place them in a vessel

Floating displays can be strung from the ceiling or stand gracefully on any surface.

Hanging airplant pods, $32 – $42 each
Mudpuppy on Etsy


Hanging glass bubble from West Elm, $9 each
Photo courtesy of West Elm








Artist Michael McDowell is a clay craftsman in Denver Colorado. His hanging airpalnt pods are available on Etsy.

Limb Garden, Air Plants in Doll Limbs on Etsy

Created by designer Robin Charlotte, this very special air plant garden features a doll arm or leg with an air plant growing inside. These doll part treasures came from the depths of a garage, so they may have some beautiful weathered markings and rust stains. Available on Etsy, $38 each.

Also check out Robin’s party favor air plant sea urchins on Etsy. A set of 25 goes for $145





Air plant vessels by Airplantman Designs. For more information, visit or e-mail [email protected]



 2. Hang a Vertical Garden within a frame

Airplant Frames, $195 each, (with plants $249)
Photo courtesy of Flora Grubb Gardens

Photo courtesy of Flora Grubb Gardens

Air plant frames provide an an architectural and minimalist way to display Tillandsias. Designed by Air Plant Man, (aka landscape architect Josh Rosen), they are sold through Flora Grubb Gardens.


Photo courtesy of AirPlantMan Designs
Photo by Josh Rosen (aka Airplantman)

3. Create  your own wall composition

Thigmotrope Satellite Fleet, set of 3 $40
Photo courtesy of Flora Grubb Gardens

Flora Grubb Gardens has come up with ‘Thigmotrope Satellites’, special fasteners designed to be screwed into the wall and hold Tillandsia air plants. Create your own wall composition.

Photo courtesy of Flora Grubb Gardens

Air Plant Care

Photo courtesy of Flora Grubb Gardens

Although they do not require watering, air plants do need some TLC. They must be soaked overnight once a week to keep them hydrated. At least once a month add a teaspoon of fertilizer to the water, and mist daily.

Provide the brightest light possible short of burning. White-leaved species need more light than green ones. Many of them will also tolerate our wide range of temperatures except for hard freezes.

They’re immortal if something (or someone) doesn’t kill them.

 Where to Buy Them

Air Plants are available at $7 per plant at Mesquite Valley Growers Nursery, 8005 E. Speedway Blvd. Tel:  338-8642

Or buy them online from a number of vendors, including the Air Plant Supply Co.


Photo courtesy of AirPlantMan Designs
Photo by Josh Rosen (aka Airplantman)

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