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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
This is a fantastic article! I have been visiting your blog for about a year now and always find you helpful. 🙂
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Thank you so much for the kind words Molly, we appreciate your support!
Like your article on airplants..the pictures sure help alot with identifying what plants I have and care for each.
I think I may have froze my air plant. Is there anything I can do to revive it?
Thank you in advance.
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Karla, while some tillandsias can withstand colder temperatures, freezing conditions are not ideal. I don’t think there is anything you can do at this point aside from keeping it inside, at room temperature and seeing if it pulls through with time. It should be apparent soon enough if it is going to recover or not. Hope that helps and good luck!
What type of air plant is at the top shelf of your air plant cubby in the picture? I’d love to have a kind like that.
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Jasmyne, we aren’t exactly sure as we got quite a few from a friend who is really into tillandsias and bromeliads, we looked into it and it could be a few different types. I would just look into different types of tillandsias and try and find one that looks most similar. Sorry we couldn’t be more help but good luck on adding one or a few to your space!
I’m supplementing our family income by selling succulents and air plants in containers I get from yard sales and thrift stores. I sell them at flea markets and craft events. Very small scale, but it helps pay for fun things for our special needs kids.
I made up care sheets based on research, and hope you don’t mind that I’m going to add a referral to your website so people can get more information. I didn’t copy your information, I just compiled directions from different sources, but frankly yours is the best. Your instructions are easy to understand, clear, and complete. I wish I could copy them and hand them out, but it would be plagiarism and too expensive to make copies.
I am now a fan and hope you get more fans from my sales. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with the rest of us. I for one am pretty clueless, but working on learning.
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Thanks for sharing Dawn and good luck with your business!