Mesic, Xeric, & Hydric Air Plants
Understanding Your Plant's Native Climate
By: Derek Bell
As we consider how to care for your air plants it is important to take into account not only where each specific plant comes from but more precisely what kind of environment are they used to living in. Recreating these climate variables to our best abilities will ensure better plant health and longevity.
As a guy from Oregon I don’t do so well in the Florida heat and humidity. I usually shrivel up and wither after just an hour or so outside in this climate. What about your plants? Are you forcing a cool and dry climate on a plant that thrives in the hot and humid jungle? Are your plants withering in unwanted heat or staying too cold during the day?
To better help us understand what plants want ecologists came up with a simple set of names that describe an ecological habitat in reference to the amount of rainfall they enjoy. The three climate designations commonly used to classify tillandsia are outlined below: Hydric, Mesic, and Xeric.
These are wet climates that get the most rain and have dense, large leaf canopies that provide lots of shade. Think the Amazon River Delta under a thick canopy of trees, or the windward side of the Big Island of Hawaii. These types of air plants grow in water or very near it. There aren’t very many species of tillandsia air plants that are available in the retail market that originate in this climate so we won’t go into an in-depth discussion about them here.
Now let's break it down into just two groups now….wet and dry.
Mesic climates receive less rain than hydric but stay moist most of the year. Think Latin American Jungles with lots of rain and shade under a thick canopy of leaves. Mesic zones tend to have rainy and wet seasons. Storms come and go and the plants are frequently watered but then able to dry out. Air plants that live here will be used to frequent waterings.
Is My Air Plant Mesic?
Their leaves will be shiny or waxy and without as many trichome as their Xeric cousins who live in dryer climates. These plants include
Abdita Multiflora, Bulbosa Belize, Bulbosa Guatemala and Butzii. These plants are used to some shade and don’t really like a lot of hot, direct sunlight. Humidity is great for these species so more misting during the week is required.
Xeric climates are are dry arid, and more prone to drought. Think the chaparral climate of Southern California. The temperatures here are more extreme than the mesic ecosystems. These plants can feel more dry and brittle than their mesic cousins. They tend to have more leaves and more obvious trichomes. Trichomes are the white fuzz or microscopic hairs you can see on many air plant species. The tiny hairs are made to catch dust or moisture from the air and absorb them into the plant. Read more about trichomes here. Plants that live in drier xeric climates that are prone to drought require more trichomes to insure the plant stays hydrated and fed. These xeric climates will also have much more light and sun than the more dense canopied climates inhabited by mesic plants. They tend to be a little more hardy and are more forgiving for new air plant owners.
Is My Air Plant Xeric?
Some of the best examples of xeric air plants are the
Xerographica with its long mint-colored leaves. Circinata and Harrisii are two other prime examples of xeric plants. These plants are all more lightly colored due to their evolutionary need to reflect light in hotter conditions in addition to the prevalence of trichomes. The very popular Ionantha are some of the smallest xeric species so they require a little more attention as they are prone to dehydration due to their small size.
While most folks have great success caring for both mesic and xeric types of air plants the same way it’s always nice to understand our plants and the climates they are used to. Not all air plants are from the same place and will require different amounts of water and light. The most fun part about raising air plants is getting to know each species and learning what conditions they like best. Most air plants are forgiving and easy to care for but the more you know about your plants the better. I know I do much better in the dark and rainy climates of the pacific northwest. I guess that would make me a Mesic air plant. Which one are you?