Hands Holding a Cluster of Tillandsia Caput Medusae Air Plants with Scissors to Trim the Roots

To Trim or Not to Trim Air Plant Roots

Tillandsia, or more commonly known as air plants, are loved by all due to their aesthetic nature and soil-free houseplant reputation. But wait, then why are they growing roots? It is true, air plants do have roots! Air plant roots are completely natural. Due to live plant import restrictions, air plants are required to be trimmed at their original export farm–typically West Indies, Mexico and South America. This is why your air plants normally arrive root-less but it does not harm the plants. However, it does make for some confusion when the roots grow back when they seemingly had none.

How do Air Plants Get Nutrients Without Roots?

Tillandsia Bulbosa Belize attached to a Tree Limb by it's Roots

Air plants are part of the unique plant family known as epiphytes–Greek word “epi” (meaning ‘upon’) and “python” (meaning ‘plant’). Epiphytes are plants that grow or attach themselves on other plants for support. They are not parasitic plants–meaning plants that acquire some or all of their nutrients from another living plant. Contrary to most plants that get nutrients from their roots in soil, air plants’ root systems are only used to attach and anchor themselves to tree trunks, branches, rocks, etc. Roots are necessary for air plant survival in the wild because they keep air plants off the ground away from animals, tumultuous weather and other threats! Nevertheless, when air plants function as decor, roots are not mandatory and may be removed without compromising the health of the plant. Think of roots like hair! It is still growing all the time but it is technically dead. And people can decide how long or short they want to keep it – just like air plant roots! 

Air plants receive nutrients through their leaves from light and moisture in the air. Over time, air plants developed trichomes on their leaves to catch and absorb nutrients. Trichomes–Greek word “trichoma” (meaning ‘hair growth’)–are the white, crystal-like hairs on the leaves that are visible on most air plant species. Another well-known plant with trichomes is marijuana–but don’t eat or smoke your air plants!

How to Trim Your Air Plant

Hands Trimming Roots on a Cluster of Tillandsia Caput Medusae Air Plants

So now you have the choice–do you want to keep your air plants au naturale with growing roots or trim them for a clean, defined look? Most enthusiasts that keep their plants inside prefer a cleaner look but those living in warmer, humid climates have the option to keep them outside where they can naturally root to a tree. Just like the plant itself, the roots will continue to grow and will need a trim every so often if that is what you choose to do. You can easily trim your air plants with small kitchen scissors or cuticle scissors–but not too close to the base of the plant, as it can cause damage! While trimming the roots you can also remove dried leaves to clean-up the base and help avoid trapping water and humidity which causes rot.

Because of their soil-free nature, air plants prevail as the superior houseplant–their versatility is unmatched. The possibilities are endless! Now that you know about air plant roots and how they get nutrients, will you trim the air plant roots or let them grow out?

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