"How to Grow",  Indoor Gardening

Air Plant Care 101: How to Not Kill Your Tillandsia

Air plants are a stunning and unique addition to any house plant collection! Since they don’t need to be potted in soil, air plants can be mounted, suspended, perched, or otherwise creatively displayed for a fun visual twist. However, caring for air plants can be a bit mysterious and even frustrating for new air plant parents. After all, they’re quite different than most common houseplants. I’ll admit, we’ve killed a few over the years too! But with a better understanding of how to take care of air plants, you may actually find them easier to maintain than some of your other leafy friends. 


Read along to learn how to take care of air plants, including tips for water, light, airflow, and fertilizer. I’ll give you one big (and perhaps obvious) hint: despite their name, they need more than air to survive! Let’s talk about a few common mistakes in air plant care, considerations for mounted or terrarium air plants, and the ultimate goal: how to not kill your air plants. Hopefully with these air plant care tips, you can help your new friends live their best life.


But first…


What Are Air Plants?

Tillandsias, also known as air plants, are a genus of over 600 different species of epiphytes – plants that do not grow in soil. They’re actually part of the Bromeliad family, which includes other members who enjoy a soil-free lifestyle – such as orchids and Spanish moss.

Air plants lack a functional root system. Instead, these evergreen, perennial plants are able to survive by drawing in moisture and nutrients from the air around them. The small hair-like roots that they do sometimes grow serve the sole purpose of latching on to a host plant or structure. However, they are not parasitic since they do not harm or draw energy from the host. 

Tillandsias are native to the forests, deserts, and mountains of Central and South America, Mexico, and the southern United States. In their native habitat, they attach to trees, rocks, or nestle into nooks between branches and simply thrive! While it is possible to grow Tillandsias outdoors in very mild climates (or in a protected greenhouse), most people enjoy keeping Tillandsias as houseplants.


Three or four larger tillandsias plants emanating from the same center have been tied to the crook of a tree by some loose fitting plant wire. They are kept shaded by the understory of the tree.
A large air plant cluster living in our back yard, nestled in a tree as they would in their native habitats. It doesn’t freeze here on the Central Coast of California, so we can get away with keeping a few of our largest air plants outdoors in sheltered locations.


HOW TO TAKE CARE OF AIR PLANTS


The three most important elements of air plant care are the right amount of light, water, and air circulation. If you’re able to get these three things dialed-in (which will vary slightly with your climate), air plants can live happily in most any home. Air plants are pretty adaptable when it comes to temperature, but will not survive freezing conditions. The ideal temperature range for air plants to thrive is 55 to 90°F, though they are hardy down to about 45 degrees. 


LIGHT


How much light do air plants need?

Air plants prefer bright indirect light. Meaning, don’t plan to keep them right in a windowsill unless it receives filtered light, or possibly only gentle morning sun. Air plants are prone to getting a bit “fried” in direct sunlight, especially when it is amplified through a glass window or terrarium. On the other hand, they will not be happy in low light. We keep our air plants in the brightest rooms of our house. 


Can I use artificial light for air plants?

The short answer is yes, grow lights can be used to provide supplemental light for air plants – or serve as their only source of light! However, note that I said “grow lights”. This means they need to be full-spectrum fluorescent or LED lights, specialized for growing plants. Standard incandescent bulbs don’t emit the quality of light that air plants need to photosynthesize.

Keep the air plants no further than 3 feet or so from the light source. If artificial light is their primary light source, plan to keep it on for about 12 hours per day in order to provide sufficient light. The use of a light timer may be helpful in that case. 


A xerographica tillandsia air plant is being held up in the center of the image. It is grey blue in color and will continue to grow in the shape of a loose ball. In the background, there is a crate on a shelf that has many air plants displayed in each of the crates shelving units.
Xerographica, a favorite species of Tillandsia.
A close up of an old wooden crate made for soft drinks. There are are twelve square openings that are filled with various air plants, some are dark green and frilly, and some are fat bodied and lighter grey green in color.
This air plant display cubby is located in the brightest room in our house, on a wall directly across from a south-facing sliding glass door.



WATER


How to Water an Air Plant

There are two different methods you can use to water your air plant: misting or soaking. We’ll talk about how much and how often in just a moment. No matter the watering method used, your air plants will be most healthy if they’re provided non-chlorinated water if possible. For example, if you’re able to use collected rain water or pond water, or at least run tap water through a basic charcoal filter to remove chlorine first. 


Misting Air Plants

Some folks claim that misting alone will not provide sufficient water to keep an air plant happy. I beg to differ! For example, some of our air plants are mounted on wreaths, boards, or cork in a manner that prevents me from fully submerging or otherwise soaking them – and they’re doing just fine! Instead, I heavily mist them with a spray bottle until the point of dripping. Spray from all angles, fully wetting all sides and parts of the plant possible. 

However, keep in mind that while our climate isn’t particularly “humid”, it definitely is not dry. Air plants living in more arid conditions will benefit from a deeper soaking routine instead. Misting can also be used in conjunction with soaking, for example as a way to deliver a light mid-week drink to your air plants during hotter months between soaking sessions on the weekend. 


DeannaCat is standing inside a hobby greenhouse that is full or orchids, bromeliads, and tillandsia air plants. Some are flowering white, purple, or light pink. Some are perched on trellises and others are on shelving units. DeannaCat is holding a larger air plant in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other. She is wearing blue jeans and a striped white and black shirt.
This photo was taken in my good friend PJ’s greenhouse. He is an avid collector of orchids, tillandsias, and other bromeliads. To water, PJ mists all of his plants regularly with a pump spray bottle. Obviously spraying them in-place is easier to do in a greenhouse than your living room, where it could make quite the mess!


Soaking Air Plants

To soak air plants, simply fill a bowl, bucket, or other container with de-chlorinated water. Allow the air plant to soak in the water for only a few minutes – 5 to 10 minutes is plenty. It is actually easier to kill them by overwatering than under-watering, since air plants are prone to rotting if allowed to sit in standing water for too long. Many times I am in a hurry (and also don’t have a large enough container to fit all of our air plants in to soak together at one time) so I simply dunk each one for about 30 seconds rather than giving them a longer soak. 

Note: Some air plants have a more dense bulbous body than others. I have found that these ones are more prone to rotting than more open-structure or frilly air plants, since water is easily trapped inside the dense portion. Therefore, I usually avoid fully soaking the bulbous-body types. Instead, I either heavily mist them or only quickly dunk them. 


Air Drying Air Plants After Watering

Pay attention here! Because this is probably the number one mistake made in air plant care. After watering your air plant, do not simply set it back in its home. Like I mentioned above, air plants can easily rot and die if they’re left with a “soggy bottom”. So whether you mist or soak your air plants, give them a little shake afterwards and then set them upside down (bottoms up!) on a towel or rack to dry. This allows any excess water to drip out of their body and crevices. 

Air plants should be fully dry within 4 to 5 hours after being watered. Most of the time, this will happen naturally if the air plants are set out to dry in a warm location with decent air circulation. However, if you find that your air plants are not drying fast enough, you can help speed up the process by using a fan nearby. On the other hand, don’t dry them too rapidly! Use the fan to increase air circulation in the area, but don’t necessarily point it directly on the plants. They should remain damp for a couple hours to absorb the moisture they need.


Various air plants of all shapes and sizes, some are attached to wooden wreaths or wood placards are sitting inside of a small shower on a stainless steel metro rack of sorts. This is the perfect place to water your air plants with the least amount of fuss and mess.
Air plant watering day in our spare shower.


How Often to Water an Air Plant

Your air plant watering routine will vary slightly depending on your climate. The general rule of thumb is to water air plants about once per week on average – sometimes more, sometimes less. If the air in your home is warm and dry, water the air plant at least weekly. During excessive heat and dry periods (or in very arid locations), watering twice per week may be necessary. On the other hand, if you live in a humid climate you can likely get away with watering only every-other-week. 

With our cool summers and foggy coastal influence, we water our air plants every two weeks 80% of the time, adjusting to more frequently during rare hot weather or extra-dry conditions.  Also keep in mind changes to the air or environment in your home caused by other forces than outdoor conditions. For example, if you run a forced air heating system in the winter that may be more drying. Some of our air plants live on our fireplace mantle. They dry out more quickly when the fireplace is used, so we water those few more often in the winter than during summer! 


A brick fireplace is shown with three house plants ( an alocasia, a monstera, and A fiddle leaf fig) sitting on the bricks in front of the fireplace. On the mantle there are various tillandsia or air plants displayed in glass candle holders and white milk glass in the shape of a large goblet. There is a larger rectangular mirror on the mantle that has a wooden wreath hanging in the middle of it. The wreath has many air plants attached to it, some small and frilly, some larger and sprawling.
Our winter mantle. At this time, the fireplace hadn’t been used yet – but once we start regularly using the fireplace in the winter, we have to relocate the air plant wreath to another location. The air becomes too hot and drying directly above it. However, the air plants tucked to the side in terrariums are more protected and don’t dry out as badly, though we do still increase their watering schedule to compensate.


Signs of Under or Over-Watering Air Plants

So, how can you tell if you’re providing enough water, or perhaps too much? It may seem tricky to figure out, but the symptoms of underwatering and overwatering air plants are different. 

When overwatered, the body of the air plant will become soft, rotten, and probably discolored. The leaves will begin to fall out from the middle. This could be caused by watering too frequently, but also likely due to the air plant not being able to properly dry out after watering.

An underwatered air plant will become more brittle and crispy. The leaves may curl more, and develop brown dry tips. 


OTHER AIR PLANT CARE TIPS


Terrarium Air Plant Care

Your air plant care routine may need to be adjusted for air plants housed inside glass terrariums or other containers compared to those kept out in the open. In an enclosed environment, a microclimate is created within the terrarium. The size and design of the terrarium will influence the humidity level and air circulation the air plant receives. Generally speaking, smaller terrariums will become more humid and stagnant than larger ones. 

To care for an air plant that lives inside a terrarium, follow the same guidance as provided above for all other air plants. Take them out of the terrarium to water and fully dry, and then put them back. If they cannot be removed for some reason, you can mist directly into the terrarium but pay extra attention to the moisture level inside. Terrarium air plants may require less frequent water than other “open-housed” air plants. 



Mounted Air Plant Care

One of the many awesome things about air plants is that they can be mounted to surfaces such as cork, boards, trees, branches, wreaths, or other decorative structures. To mount an air plant,  secure it to the surface of choice with wire, twine, fishing line, or glue. This E6000 waterproof glue is a popular choice used to mount air plants. Simply apply a small dab of glue to a clean, dry surface and then press the body of the air plant into the glue. This works best for petite, light air plants. Heavy ones will need extra support with wire or twine.

Misting or spraying is the most realistic watering method for mounted air plants. It may or may not be possible to set them “upside down” to dry, depending on what they’re mounted to. 


A four way image collage, each image containing a different air plant against a white background. The first image shows a hand holding a fatter bodied air plant that is lighter grey green and seems to be slightly fuzzy. The second image shows three different air plants of varying shaped and structure, some are more compact and tight while others have longer and more frilly leaves extending from their center body. They are all attached to a darker piece of barn wood. The third image shows an air plant being displayed in a hanging golden bowl whose bottom is tear dropped shaped. The plant is very grey white in color and has many frilly leaves protruding out from the center body. The fourth image shows a hand holding an air plant that is long and slender, it is light grey green in color and the bottom of the plant is curled into itself, making it perfect place to hang from.


Fertilizing Air Plants

Air plants can survive without additional fertilizer, especially if rain water or other fresh water is used to water them. Yet an occasional feeding will make an air plant exceptionally happy! Fertilizer helps promote growth, blooming and reproduction in air plants. Use a water-soluble orchid or bromeliad fertilizer in your air plant care routine, adding it to their water once every month or so. 



Air Plant Life Cycle

Speaking of fertilizing to promote growth, blooming, and reproduction… Did you know that air plants only bloom once in their lifetime? It may take them years to bloom, and once they do they can be in bloom for several weeks to many months. However, after a bloom the air plant will start to put its energy into producing new “pups” (baby plants) that will grow from the base of the main plant. Once the pup develops and the bloom fades away, the mother plant will slowly die. It can be very sad when a beloved or big old air plant gets to this stage, but know that it is simply part of their natural lifecycle. At least you get new babies from the process! 


A large tillandsia air plant is shown, it has been attached to a wooden placard. The air plant has started to bloom and the flower is shooting out straight towards the camera. Once an air plant blooms it has reached its end of life but it usually sends off a new pup or baby from the original plant.
This huge old air plant (dubbed “the monster that lives in our bathroom”) went in to bloom shortly after we adopted her from a friend. The little brown bits were once each an individual purple flower along the “flower spike”, now dried up. The mother plant survived for nearly a year during and after bloom, but then produced a large pup and faded away.


Final Thoughts

Don’t have air plants at home yet? I hope this article helped prepare and excite you to jump in! If you already have air plants but are struggling to keep them happy, I hope these tips gave you a few “ah-ha” moments.

In all, try not to get discouraged if one happens to die on you. Through trial and perhaps some error, you’ll work out an air plant care routine that works best for you and your plants. With time, you’ll probably also learn which varieties of air plants do best in your home or are easiest to care for. Personally, we have found that Tillandsia Xerographica, Stricta, Aeranthos, and Ionantha to be the most low-maintenance hardy air plant varieties.

Thanks for tuning in! If you enjoyed this article, please leave a comment or share it to spread the love. You may also like our Houseplant Care 101 article, along with our Beginner’s Guide to Using a Hobby Greenhouse post. Happy growing!



DeannaCat signature, keep on growing


10 Comments

  • Vince B

    Hey D!
    Any thoughts or advice on propagating airplants? As you know they aren’t the cheapest to replace! Happy holidays. Thank you for the great article!

    • DeannaCat

      Hey Vince! Well, you technically can grow an air plant from seed, but it takes two to four years to grow the plant to any decent size. The best and easiest way is to propagate tillandsia is through the pups they produce. Did you see the section near the end of the article about their life cycle, and fertilizer? So if you regularly fed your tillandsia to get it to produce pups, you could gently separate them before the mother dies and there is a chance she may produce more, or produce several at once. We have had one mother plant give us many babies at once. I hope that helps!

  • Kat

    Perfect timing! I have a similar cubby in our bathroom (actually an old coke bottle cart) that I’ve been thinking about putting some airplants in… I’m just worried because no other plant we’ve put in the bathroom has liked living there. Our shower makes the whole room get a slight mist (even with fan on and window open). Do you think that would be good for airplants or would small daily mist from the shower be too much?

    • DeannaCat

      Hi Kat! It depends, really… Do you run a fan or open a window to allow some air flow in there? Would they get enough sunlight? If the answer is yes and yes, then they probably wouldn’t mind a daily misting – especially since it’s not a soak. I hope that helps!

      • Kat

        Yes and yes. That definitely helps! Thank you!! I just got two small air plants to be the guinea pigs for the spot… so hopefully, if all goes well, there will be lots more in our bathroom. 🙂

  • Susan

    Perfect timing! My child made me a small ceramic wall planter with a very tiny space for a plant and I bought a little baby Tillandsia to go inside. Now I know how to take care of it – thanks!

  • Misty

    Great read! Now I know what happened to mine earlier this year. I was letting it soak too long and not allowing enough dry time. I will certainly give it another go. They are so beautiful and unique. Thanks for the info!

    • DeannaCat

      Yay! Lol, not to excite in your plight – but I love a good “ah-ha” moment that makes you feel ready to try again. Good luck, and you’re so welcome!

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