By Lily Ferreras

Tillandsias, most commonly known as air plants, are tropical plants and have an exotic look to them. But… where do Tillandsias come from?

Air plants’ origin is diverse. The Tillandsia genus is native to the forests, mountains and deserts of northern Mexico and the southeastern United States, Central and South America, including the Caribbean.

Knowing more about the origin of air plants, and which varieties are the most common ones in our households, is a great first step, especially when just starting out.

Air Plant Origin

The genus Tillandsia was named by Carl Linnaeus in 1753 after the Swedish physician and botanist Dr Elias Tillandz (source).

From the beginning of the formal investigation of Tillandsias, they have attracted a lot of interest.

The Tillandsia genus is the most primitive and xerophyte* of all Bromeliaceae family (Garth, 1964). Its uses are reported since the late- archaic and pre-Columbian cultures (source).

*Note: a xerophyte is a species of plant that has adaptations to survive in an environment with little liquid water, such as a desert.

Depending on the culture, air plants have been used in a variety of ways, such as for:

  • Food.
  • Protection.
  • Fibres.
  • Pottery.
  • Ceremonies, etc.

“Avila (2012) reports that Tillandsia spp. was probably known as ‘chicōm-ācatl’ in pre- Columbian cultures, which was used in Aztec temples as decoration (Pierce, 2000).

Other Tillandsia species, like T. Purpurea Ruiz and Pav., are depicted on pre- Incan Mochica pottery of northern Peru, often within a magical context (Arslanian et al., 1986).

Also, in Peru, T. Usneoides was used in wrapping fruit and fragile objects, as well as filling pillows and mattresses (Pierce, 2000).”

E Estrella-Parra, M Flores-Cruz, G Blancas-Flores, SD Koch, FJ Alarcón-Aguilar. 2019 The Tillandsia genus: history, uses, chemistry, and biological activity.

Nowadays, air plants continue to have many uses, apart from having them as houseplants.

Read also: 10 Air Plant Benefits that You Should Know About.

This map shows the countries where most air plants are found in the wild. 

Where Do Air Plants Come From?

Tillandsia is native to the forests, mountains and deserts of northern Mexico and the southeastern United States, Central and South America, including the Caribbean.

In the US, you can find them in the southern states like Florida, California, and Texas (source).


Where Do Air Plants Grow Naturally?

These tropical plants have naturally been established in diverse environments such as:

  • Equatorial tropical rain forests.
  • Mountains and high elevation terrains – such as the Andes mountains.
  • Rock dwelling regions – especially air plants that are lithophytes or saxicolous. But they can also live in roofs and even telephone wires!
  • Swamps – such as Louisiana swamp, especially for Spanish moss (T. Usneoides) species.
  • Desserts – for instance, in the Atacama Desert, in northern Chile (source), where T. Landbeckii, T. Marconae and T. Virescens are found.

Mesic vs Xeric Air Plants


There are many different Tillandsia varieties from a range of different native habitats.

One of the key factors in determining the type of care and environment your Tillandsia will prefer is whether it is a mesic or xeric air plant – or something in between.

Insider Tip: Rather than only choosing an air plant by its appearance and how easy it is to care for (don’t get me wrong, we all do this!), you should also pay attention to your environment (temperature, humidity, light, etc.)!

Mesic and xeric terms refer to the type of native environment that the Tillandsia originates from and therefore will prefer to thrive.

  • Mesic Air Plants:
    • Their natural habitat is the terrestrial shade or in the lower levels of the forests (like South American rainforests).
    • Originate from climates with moderate humidity.
    • Prefer frequent watering and indirect or filtered sunlight.
    • Often have smooth green leaves with less visible trichomes.
  • Xeric Air Plants:
    • Come from drier or dessert-like habitats and mostly live in the upper floors of the woods and on rocks.
    • Live in precipitation-poor areas with high humidity.
    • Prefer less watering and bright direct sunlight.
    • Often have fuzzy-looking grey or light green leaves with abundant trichomes.
    • Example: T. Tectorum (see photo).

But, how can you tell if your air plant is mesic, xeric or something in between?

Look at the colour, texture, and leaf shape of your air plant to determine the type.

  • Mesic Air Plants:
    • Have smooth leaves (less visible trichomes).
    • Their leaves are dark green.
    • Often the leaves are tightly curled or cupped.
  • Semi Mesic Air Plants:
    • Their leaves are bright green.
    • Have less smooth leaves (show some trichomes).
  • Xeric Air Plants:
    • Have fuzzy leaves (abundant trichomes).
    • Their leaves are grey or light green.
    • Often the leaves are flat, so they can soak up the sunlight.

Read also: What Is an Air Plant? 10 Tillandsia Factsith Images].

Most Common Air Plant Varieties

The Tillandsia genus contains over 650 species of air plants. So, there’s no exaggeration when saying that you have a ton to choose from!

Here I’m going to mention some of the most common varieties of Tillandsias. Just to get your curiosity started. 😉

P.S. For more kinds of Tillandsias, check Air Plant Types.


1) Tillandsia Usneoides (Spanish Moss)

Tillandsia Usneoides is known by many different names, including Spanish Moss, Long Moss, Black Moss, Grandpa’s Beard, etc.


This type of air plant is the most widely distributed representative of the tropical and subtropical family Bromeliaceae (source).

The Tillandsia Usneoides is native to the Southern US, South & Central America, Mexico, Bermuda, Australia, and French Polynesia.


  • Leaves: The types of leaves vary depending on the type of Spanish Moss. They can be from feathery soft to hard and curly.
  • Flowers: The flowers are very small, light green, and have a very deep fragrance when in bloom. They rarely bloom when kept indoors though, but if they do, it will be in the summer.
  • Size: These air plants can also vary in size, but are 12-30” tall on average. They can, however, grow up to 25’ tall!

See Tillandsia Usneoides on Etsy.


2) Tillandsia Xerographica

Referred to as the “Queen/King of the Air Plants”, it is also known by the name Tillandsia Kruseana and Tillandsia Tomasellii. These air plants are very hardy and are “xeric” plants.


The Tillandsia Xerographica is native to Mexico, Guatemala and Salvador. You can primarily find them hanging on the highest branches.

This kind of air plant lives in very dry, sunny woods where it grows as an epiphyte (attached to tress) or lithophyte (attached to rocks or stones) at 140-600 meters. 


  • Leaves: They have strong, silver-green curly leaves that are wider at the base and grow thinner at the ends. The leaves curl and wrap around the plant as it grows.
  • Flowers: It blooms from a spiky inflorescence, on a thick stem. The leafy bracts are a rosy red and the floral bracts are green or yellowish-red in colour. The flowers are pale lilac with pink highlights.
  • Size: It can grow over 3 feet in size.

See Tillandsia Xerographica on Etsy.


3) Tillandsia Aeranthos

It also goes by the names of Pourretia Aeranthos, Tillandsia Dianthoidea, Anoplophytum Aeranthose, Tillandsia bicolour, Anoplophytum Roseum, Anoplophytum Dianthoideum, Tillandsia Microxiphion, and Tillandsia unca.


You can find them from sea level to hundreds of meters above sea level in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil.

Tillandsia Aeranthos grows alone or in small clusters. The clusters can consist of two to up to a dozen plants.


  • Leaves: It has sharp and stiff leaves that are green in colour. They grow upward into a cone.
  • Flowers: When in bloom, it produces flowers that are both purple and pink.
  • Size: It can grow to be up to nine inches in height.

See Tillandsia Aeranthos on Etsy.


4) Tillandsia Harrisii

This air plant is another variety that is more xeric. Its fuzzy leaves are full of trichomes.


Tillandsia Harrisii is native to Guatemala. It lives in places with an altitude of 0-500 meters above sea level.


  • Leaves: It has soft and wide silver (greenish-white) leaves. They grow inwards and have a curled structure like that of a rosette. 
  • Flowers: When blooming, it produces a red inflorescence with blue-purple flowers.
  • Size: It is usually 8 inches tall with a thick and long stem of about 40 cm.

See Tillandsia Harrisii on Etsy.


5) Tillandsia Ionantha

Finally, we have Tillandsia Ionantha, one of the most colourful air plants.

It’s referred to as the “blushing bride”. It is also known by the name Tillandsia Rubentifolia and Pityrophyllum Gracile. 


This plant is native to Mexico and Central America (Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua). You can usually find them at altitudes ranging from 450 to 2000 meters. 

Ionanthas grow in both mesic and xeric tropical habitats.

You can find them in lowlands, mountains, forests, mangroves, cliffs, beaches, ravines and even along roadsides and highways!


  • Leaves: They are green and spiky with silver hues. The silver-hued leaves will turn darker green when the plant matures.
  • Flowers: The plant blooms from March to May when the plant top will turn bright red and violet flowers grow out. 
  • Size: It usually reaches 8 to 12 centimetres in height.

See Tillandsia Ionantha on Etsy.

Read also: Air Plant Care – 8 Steps to Grow and Keep Tillandsias Alive.

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