Nothing livens up a home like houseplants, and these two hearty, low-maintenance options offer plenty of variety.
If you’re “bad with plants” but still wish you could beautify your home or garden, succulents and air plants are a great choice. They are hard to kill and versatile enough for use in a wide range of creative projects.
You can use them to create living wreaths, roofs and tapestries, vertical gardens, fairy homes, terrariums and anything else where bulletproof beauty is required. Here’s an introduction to these very special plants, as well as some instructions to help you get started.
Succulents are an incredibly diverse group of plants with only one thing in common: they store water in their stems and leaves, making them a perfect fit for neglectful gardeners. Some can go many months without water.
Available in any color of the rainbow, and in just about any form you can dream up, there is a succulent for everyone. Their leaves can look like pink jelly beans (Sedum rubrotinctum) or rocks (Lithops species), transparent pods (Haworthia cooperi), or mind-boggling fractal patterns like Crassula ‘Buddha’s Temple’ and Agave victoriae-reginae. Some you might grow for novelty alone, such as carrion flowers (Stapelia species), which have psychedelically patterned star-shaped blooms that attract flies with their scent of rotting meat.
Caring for succulents
Grow succulents indoors or out, in containers or in the ground. Most succulents are easily damaged by frosts or freezes, but can easily be grown indoors as houseplants or brought inside for winter. If you live in a colder climate, some of the most cold-hardy succulents belong in the genera Sedum and Sempervivum.
The easiest way to kill a succulent is by overwatering, so improve your odds by growing them where water won’t collect and rot the roots. Provide container-grown succulents with a free-draining potting mix and a pot that has a drainage hole; and if growing outdoors, plant them in soil with excellent drainage.
Since each plant is different, it pays to look them up online to learn about their specific needs, or to see if they’re more trouble than they’re worth. For example, living stones (Lithops) are not tolerant of humidity, should be kept completely dry for much of the year, and only receive water during certain months.
Most succulents require full sun, but others — such as Haworthia, Gasteria, Sansevieria and some Aloe species — need a bit of shade in the afternoon or else their leaves get sunburned.
Get to know air plants
While succulents are low-maintenance because they don’t need a lot of water, wispy and delicate “air plants” (Tillandsia) are unique because they don’t even need soil at all. They will thrive on nothing more than a branch of driftwood, or even on refrigerator magnets, as those who lived in the ’70s will recall.
Related to pineapples and the bromeliads you might grow as houseplants, these are true epiphytes that naturally grow on the branches of trees in warm-temperate and tropical regions of the Americas. One of the most familiar is the so-called “Spanish moss” that drapes luxuriantly from the limbs of live oak trees in the Deep South, but there are many more species from the tropics, both beautiful and bizarre.
Tillandsia bulbosa, with its bulb-like base and twisted narrow leaves, looks more like a sea creature than a plant. Tillandsia tectorum is so fuzzy and fluffy you’d almost expect it to float away on a breeze or dissipate into fairy dust upon watering.
Display air plants however you like: hanging from the ceiling like a living mobile, on driftwood, on the branches of large houseplants, on the walls as art, like a bow tie on wrapped presents — you name it. The biggest consideration in choosing a home for your air plant is how much sunlight it will receive, though you should also make sure that you’ll be able to water it easily.
Air plant maintenance
Air plants generally need nothing more than sunlight, occasional watering and average humidity, with a few exceptions. Species with smooth, green leaves generally need more moisture and humidity than the fuzzy and silvery xeric species, which are excellent candidates for growing indoors or in drier climates such as California.
If you’re growing Tillandsia in the home or in dry climates, water them once a week by either misting them with a spray bottle or by briefly dunking them in a bucket of water. Air plants are usually not tolerant of frost or temperatures below freezing, with the exception of species from the Southeastern United States. Luckily, they’re very easy to bring indoors when the weather gets cold.