I’ve always believed that every single plant is a work of art. From weeds to orchids, their colors, patterns, shapes, and textures are captivating. But if there’s one genus that always stands out for me, it’s Tillandsia. I recently bought myself a few minis to add to my collection. Because they’re quite small, I couldn’t just plonk them down somewhere. They needed a haven where I could show them off and not worry about misplacing one. And what better way to do that than to make an inexpensive air plant shadow box that doubles up as living 3D art?
It’s the perfect way to celebrate the beauty of nature and add a creative touch to any space.
Plus, you get to put those little Tillies on display in a unique and special way.
In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to make an air plant shadow box and share tips and tricks to create living 3D art. But before we get there, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram. And don’t forget to subscribe so you’ll never miss a post!
What you need
- Small air plants
- Branch or other decorative materials (e.g., moss, stones, twigs, etc.)
- Clear elastic bands
- A shadow box or scrap wood to make your own.
We have loads of scrap wood, so I decided to make my own shadow box. I’ll share how you can put one together, just in case you can’t find the right size for your air plants.
How to use air plants in living 3D art
Choose a base
Air plants are easy to care for and require minimal maintenance, making them a great choice for something like this. To start, you need a solid base to act as a canvas for your “living” art. Choose a natural material that will provide a stable foundation for your air plants and complement the overall look you’re going for. My landscape scene sits in a scrap wood shadow box that I cobbled together.
If you’re not keen to start cobbling 😉 you can use an old drawer or a shallow wooden crate. Just make sure it’s clean and air-plant-friendly. In other words, it hasn’t been stained with harsh chemicals or other funny stuff. I would advise against using pressure-treated wood since it probably contains copper, which is harmful to Tillies.
Making a scrap wood shadow box
If you’re making your shadow box from scratch, look for thick, sturdy, chunky planks. The wider the wood, the more room you will have to create that gorgeous 3D effect. I used scaffolding plank that’s weathered over time. Spruce, pine, and fir scaffolding is inexpensive and is about 4 cm thick (2”) and 22.5 cm wide, making it ideal for something like this. I cut mine lengthwise into 9 cm (3.5”) widths.
My shadow box is 37cm x 27cm (14.5″ x 10.5″). You can make yours bigger or smaller depending on the size of your Tillies and the decorative items you want to add. Cut the wood into four pieces to make: two sides, a top and a bottom.
Sand the cut pieces to smooth them out. I used 60-grit to level some deeply weathered areas out and finished with 120-grit.
Before putting the shadow box together, add any “supporting” bits. I have no idea what the right word is, but I needed a headless nail in the bottom to keep my branch stable and secure.
There was no way I’d be able to hammer the nail in once the shadow box was done. So bear that in mind when you make yours.
I also added a few hooks to hang the Spanish moss.
Once all the “supporting” bits were on, I could join the sides to form a rectangular frame or box.
Check that the joins are square, and use clamps to hold the pieces together until the glue dries.
Paint or stain the frame to give it a finished look. I used Unicorn SPiT to stain mine.
Avoid using paint that contains lead or copper. They’ll make your Tillies sick, and we don’t want that.
Choose your air plants
Selecting the right air plant type for your shadow box is important. There are more than 400 different types, each with its own unique shape, size, and color. Some air plants prefer more sunlight, while others would rather spend their time in a shady spot. Do your research to ensure you pick the right one for your space and the level of light they will receive. For my living art landscape, I choose Spanish Moss, Tillandsia Aeranthos, Tillandsia Fuchsii Gracilis, and Tillandsia ionantha ‘Rubra’
The Ionantha and Fuchsii both reminded me of tufts of grass……
While the stiff green leaves of the Aeranthos resembled an Aloe bainesii that grows wild in the coastal forests of Natal.
Look for healthy plants that are free of pests or diseases. If you see white, furry stuff on the leaves, that’s a good thing. That stuff is called trichomes, which are small hair-like structures that help the air plant grab the moisture in the air and absorb it. They’re essential and a sure sign that your plant is happy and healthy.
Plan your design
Lay out your air plants on your chosen base, experimenting with different arrangements until you find the one that works for you. Consider the size and shape of each plant, as well as it’s color and texture. You can use a variety of materials, such as driftwood, stones, or shells, to add more interest to the scene.
To “stage” my small Tillies in this shadow box, I chose a dead branch from our weeping mulberry and cut one end at an angle so it would sit flush against the box frame.
Since air plants already look dramatic, the branch and a mossy rock were all I needed to add.
Attaching the air plants
Once you have your design in place, you can attach your air plants. Many people attach their plants with a non-toxic adhesive, like E6000 or a hot glue gun. Use enough adhesive to hold the plants in place without damaging them. My personal preference is clear elastic hair bands. They’re inexpensive and come in different sizes, and removing the air plants for their weekly dunking in water is easy.
You can also tie them down with a fishing line. Make sure the fishing line or elastics aren’t too tight.
Watering your air plants
Air plants don’t require soil, but they do need to be misted or soaked in water regularly to survive. I usually dunk my air plants for about ½ hour in the sink and use ordinary tap water. I recommend letting the tap water sit in the sink for about an hour before dunking the air plants. Don’t use distilled water or softened water. There aren’t enough minerals and nutrients to keep your air plant happy.
Dry the air plants upside down on a paper towel before putting them back into the shadow box.
Caring for your air plants
While all Tillies grow in air, their water and light needs may differ. Follow the care instructions for the specific type of air plants you’ve chosen, and ensure they receive the right amount of light and humidity. They’ll burn in direct sunlight but love bright, airy spaces.
Remember to keep an eye on your air plants and adjust them as needed to ensure they continue to thrive.
Why a shadow box is great for displaying air plants.
Air plants, or Tillandsias, are placed in shadow boxes for decorative and practical purposes. The deep box frame makes it possible to arrange your air plants in a three-dimensional manner, creating a visually appealing display.
You immediately understand why it’s called a shadow box when you add a few lights. Aren’t those shadows and the play of light just gorgeous?
In addition, showcasing air plants inside a shadow box lets you position each plant in a way that highlights its unique shape and texture.
Shadow boxes also protect air plants from direct sunlight and drafts, allowing enough light and ample air to flow around the Tillies.
Overall, a shadow box can provide an ideal environment for air plants to grow and be displayed beautifully and functionally. When putting something like this together, let your creativity guide you, and have fun!
If you like the idea of making an inexpensive air plant shadow box and turning it into living art, don’t forget to pin it for later.
Sharing is caring.
More ideas to display air plants.
- An individual air plant also looks fantastic when you incorporate her into a dreamcatcher.
- If you have one large Tillie that deserves to stand alone and make a wow statement, then a boho-styled wall hanging is the perfect way to show her off.
- Another inexpensive display idea is this knitted twine air plant holder.
- Tillies also look amazing displayed as part of your décor.
How do you display your air plants? Let me know in the comments; I’m always looking for new ideas. Oh, BTW, if you’re looking for some of the things we used, we’ve got you covered. Disclosure: Clicking on the links below means we may receive a commission from Amazon. But don’t worry, it won’t come out of your pocket, and it helps us make more amazing crafts to share with you 😉
And if you prefer to buy rather than DIY, then maybe these beauties will appeal.