The Q&A Archives: Air Plant

Question: I know there's a green plant which doesn't need water but just absorbs moisture from the air. What is the name of the plant and how to grow it? Is it easy to grow for a lazy person like me?

Answer: You're probably thinking of the air fern, which is billed in stores and some garden centers as a plant that needs no water or fertilizer. It's not really a plant. It is actually the skeletal remains of a tiny sea animal called Sertularia, a distant relative of coral. The skeletons look like ferns and have extremely fine foliage. In stores they are also sold as "air plants" and "air moss". The skeletons are collected by ships which dredge for them along coastal areas in the estuaries of streams and rivers. They are then treated with chemicals and dyed green. If you have an air fern, don't water or fertilize it -- this exercise will be similar to trying to feed a corpse. And even worse, the water removes the dye and bleaches the stems. Also, if the air fern has been shipped or stored for any length of time, it is likely to have a rather strong odor, not entirely pleasant. It's best to let the fern air out before putting it in a closed room. How about growing something else, instead? There's a real, live plant called 'Cast Iron' plant that's really easy to grow, and thrives on neglect.

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