How to Care for Air Plants

How to Care for Air Plants

Plant Collective
9 minute read

Air plants (Tillandsias) are renowned throughout the world for being unique, low maintenance house plants. As a new air plant parent, you might be wondering how to care for them. Luckily, learning how to care for air plants is simple if you follow the easy steps in our guide below. 

Air plants are epiphytic, which means that in the wild, they grow on other living things such as trees or shrubs, and some have even been found growing on cacti. Air plants can also be Lithophytic which means they grow on rocks. They have also been found growing on rooftops and telephone wires.

 

These plants do not have traditional roots systems and therefore don't require soil. Their roots only serve as a way for them to grab hold of their host. So, how do Air Plants absorb their moisture and nutrients if not by their roots? Well, they do this by way of their Trichomes! Trichomes are small bristle-like hairs on the leaves of the air plants which help them absorb water, airborne minerals and for some species, even helps them to regulate their temperature. So contrary to popular belief, air plants do require sunlight and water to survive, just not soil!

 

a photo of a person misting their air plant

 

Watering your air plants


Unlike other plants, air plants are sensitive to hard tap water. Using straight tap water can be detrimental to your plant’s health over time because municipal water often contains chemicals such as chlorine or fluoride. The best water to use is collected rain or pond water. Second best is bottled spring water. If those options are not available to you, set aside tap water overnight to dechlorinate before using it to water your plants.



Air plant care


So before determining the right care requirements and how frequently you should be watering your air plant, the first thing you'll want to establish is whether or your plant is Mesic or Xeric or somewhere in between. This information is important because it is going to determine your plants light and watering needs. There are two main kinds of environments in which air plants grow in:

 

Mesic: A type of habitat with a moderate or well-balanced supply of moisture, e.g., a mesic forest, a temperate hardwood forest, or mesic prairies.

Xeric: A type of habitat with arid, harsh, dry environments, with little rainfall e.g., deserts, shrublands, or succulent woodlands.

a photo of a mesic air plant

Mesic air plants can be identified by their smooth texture and are often a darker shade of green. These plants usually grow on trees under canopies of a rainforest, so they receive less sun but require more water. They are usually dark green in colour and smooth in texture.

Light: Provide bright but indirect or dappled sunlight.

Water:  Mesic species can be soaked for 30-60 mins 1 to 2 times a week in warmer months, cutting back to once a week in the winter. This species enjoys ample humidity and moisture, so misting regularly (at least every other day) in between soaks using a Spray Bottle is encouraged. Adjust this schedule as needed according to how hot and dry your space is.

Aeration: Place upside-down someplace with good air circulation to allow the plant to dry after watering. Once dried, you can return the plant back to its display.

Examples of mesic species: T. Bulbosa, T. Psuedobaileyi, T. Melanocrater, T. Punculata, T. Brachycaulous/Multiflora, T, Fasciculata, T. Bergeri, T. Aeranthos, T. Juncifolia, T. Butzii, etc.

a photo of a xeric air plant

Xeric Air plants are easy to identify by their colour - which is often white or silvery in appearance as these plants have prominent trichomes. Since xeric air plants grow on shrubs and rocks in desert-like environments, their trichomes are large and pronounced so they can absorb as much moisture as they possibly can in order to survive. 

Light: These species will appreciate a bright area and can also handle some direct sunlight

Water: Xeric Species can be soaked for 15-30 mins, once a week in warmer months, cutting back to just once every 10 - 14 days in the winter. Misting is encouraged every couple of days using a Spray Bottle. Adjust this schedule as needed according to how dry or humid your space is. These species are drought tolerant and will generally prefer semi-frequent misting over long soaks.

Aeration: Place upside-down someplace with good air circulation to allow the plant to dry after watering. If your space is very humid you can also use a fan to help dry the species out, as they are more sensitive to centre rot. Once dried, you can return the plant back to its display.

Examples of xeric species: T. Streptophylla, T. Xerographica, T. Tectorum, T. Seleriana, T. Medusa, T. Harrisii, T. Circinata, etc.
 

a photo of semi-mesic air plants

Semi-mesic Air plants are somewhere in between mesic and xeric, they'll have characteristics of both classifications. Their leaves are usually green and smooth in texture and their bases will tend to have visible trichomes. Their care is more similar to care for mesic species, however, they will be a little more forgiving if your space is not so humid or if you forget to mist.

Light: Provide plenty of bright or dappled sunlight.

Water: Soak at least once a week for 30 minutes to an hour in summer warmer months and cut down to once every 9-12 days in winter months. These species enjoy moderate humidity and moisture, so misting once or twice a week in between soaks using a Spray Bottle is recommended. Adjust this schedule as needed according to how hot and dry your space is.

Aeration: Place upside-down someplace with good air circulation to allow the plant to dry after watering. Once dried, you can return the plant back to its display.


Text: Examples: T. Ionantha, T Capitata, T. Oaxacana, T. Juncea, T. Pruinosa, T. Capitata, T. Scaposa, T. Plagiotropica, T. Schiedeana, T. Usneoides (“Spanish moss”), etc.


Please note: This guide is generalized, and you'll need to adjust accordingly to your lighting situation and the relative humidity levels in your home! 

 

a photo of a Tillandsia Melanocrater next to a mister spray bottle

Maintaining your Air Plant

 

The best time to get a feel for the health of your air plant is right after watering it. A healthy air plant will be green in colour whereas a plant that is yellowing or browning in colour is a sign of a sick or rotting air plant. Keep in mind that some species of air plant are naturally brown or black by their base. For example: T. Punculata, T. Juncea, T. Melanocrator, T. Butzii, etc. When looking for signs of rotting, pay closer attention to the newer growth coming from the centre of the plant.

 

Air plants, like all other plants, will shed old leaves to put their energy into new growth, so it's normal if you notice old leaves dying. So long as all the new growth is vibrant, your plant is healthy. You can leave the old leaves to fall off naturally or you can gently pluck them off if you don't like the look of them.

 

Browning tips are a sign that your plant might not be receiving enough humidity. You may want to increase misting to see if that helps. Again, if you don't like the look of the dry leaves, pluck or trim the leaves with a sterile pair of scissors.

 

 

Fertilizing your Air Plant


This is optional and isn't necessarily required especially if you're using rain or pond water. But fertilizer specifically formulated for air plants can be added to your watering in the growing months of March through October and will help your air plant grow strong and will also help promote flowering. Cease fertilizing when you notice that the plant is starting to bud to help promote longer-lasting flowers.
a photo os a flowering Tillandisa Houston

Air Plant Flowers

 

Finally, all the time and love you've put into caring for your air plant has paid off and in return, your plant is about to reward you with beautiful and unique flowers!

An air plant bloom marks the beginning of the plant's reproductive process in its life cycle. A single air plant will only flower once in its lifetime. Depending on the species, the flowers can be pink, purple or white and will stem from vibrant flowering bracts that can be yellow, green, red or pink in colour.

During blooming stages, continue watering your plant but try to avoid soaking the flowering bract. You can also cut back on soaking and increase misting instead.

At this point, the plant will usually start working on producing "pups" or off-shoots of baby plants before dying. We recommend that you keep the pup attached to the mother plant as long as possible. If they are still attached, then the pup is still receiving energy from the mother plant before it dies completely. After the flower fades, you can let it fall off naturally or cut it off with sterile scissors. Alternatively, if you don't like how it looks, then you can remove the pup once it's about a third of the size of the mother plant.

 

For more information on the curious life cycle of air plants, visit our article: The Life Cycle or Air Plants.

 

 

You now have all the steps you need to start taking care of your air plants. Although there are over 650 varieties, each with its own special needs, the steps outlined above will provide a solid foundation for the beginning air plant connoisseur looking to care for their air plants. Once you have your air plants care needs met, you can enjoy their unique and exotic appearance. After all, half the fun of owning air plants is that they can be displayed in so many fun and creative ways! Happy growing (:

 

a photo of air plants displayed on driftwood and inside a hanging globe terrarium a group of air plants displayed in sea urchin shells
a group of air plants displayed in wooden bowls, tiny baskets, and tiny terra cotta pots

 

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