How to Care for Air Plants: Process Explained

Air plants are hardy and resilient; although they are known for being low maintenance, they still have some requirements.

Each plant has a specific set of care needs. If you have bought from a reputable dealer, you should have received tailored instructions.

Novice gardeners wanting to learn how to care for air plants might be pleased to know they have just three simple necessities; water, light, and unsurprisingly, air.

What are Air Plants?

Air plant is the common name for Tillandsia. They are epiphytes, plants that feed through their leaves from nutrients in the atmosphere. They don’t need soil to grow; the only purpose of their roots is to anchor to a host, often a tree, rock, or cliff face.

How to Care for Air Plants

Air plants co-habit with the host, they don’t drain anything from it; they absorb everything they need from the air.

Air

Traditional pot plants use roots to get food and water from the soil to the plant. Air plants have roots, but they’re only used to anchor to the host.

Tillandsia capture water and nutrients from the surrounding atmosphere, which absorb through their leaves.

Good, clean airflow is vital for growing air plants indoors. If possible, it should mimic growing conditions in the wild. Most plants grow in dry and hot or humid environments hence, Tillandsias thrive in steamy bathrooms and kitchens.

The airflow needs to be sufficient to dry plants within 4-hours of a thorough soaking.

Air plants are adaptable but flourish in temperatures between 50°-90°F. Bring outdoor plants indoors at the first sign of frost.

When and How to Water Air Plants

Although air plants absorb lots of moisture from the atmosphere, it isn’t sufficient for them to thrive. They need regular watering.

Here are the four primary methods:

Misting

misting air plants

Fill a spray bottle with the best water for air plants (outlined below), set the nozzle to ‘mist’ and give the plants a couple of spritzes.

Doing this 2/3 times a week between proper watering sessions prevents the plant from dehydrating.

Dunking

As you would expect, dunking entails quickly dipping the plant in and out of a container of water. Repeat it 3 or 4 times, then leave it out to dry thoroughly. Failure to do so might result in rot, deterioration, and possible death of the plant.

Tillandsia Xerographica are more easily dunked than soaked.

Soaking

soaking air plants

The best and most efficient way of watering Tillandsia is using the soaking method about once a week. Trichomes – the tiny hair-like reservoirs on the leaves – have sufficient time to absorb the most water.

Fill a bowl with water and place the plants in, head first. Leave them for up to an hour until they have had the chance to take sufficient water on board.

Remove them from the container and let them dry thoroughly, somewhere with good airflow. It usually takes around 4-hours.

The Faucet Method

It might be awkward to water air plants that air part of a display, but it is still necessary.

The easiest way is to grip the host object while holding the air plant under running water for a minute or two. It isn’t ideal as tap water isn’t the most suitable, but it is better than misting alone.

A better option is to collect a large jug of rainwater and gently pour it over the plant above a sink.

The Best Water for Hydrating Air Plants

Tillandsia prefers natural water, which from the faucet is too rich in chlorine. Rainfall collected in a butt is ideal, although pond, aquarium, and lake water also fit the bill.

If the only option is water drawn from the faucet, remember to pour it and let it sit overnight. The chemicals will naturally dissipate before morning.

If you’re taking air plant cultivation very seriously, check the pH of the water. They prefer a pH between 5.5 – 6.

  • Any lower the water is too acidic, a small amount of baking soda balances it.
  • Any higher and the pH is too alkaline, a dash of white vinegar reduces the value.

Similarly, the water needs to sit overnight before use.

Never use distilled or artificially softened water; they cause more harm than good. Bottled spring water will suffice if all else fails.

How to Know When to Water Air Plants

Air plants will let you know if you have overlooked their watering session; the leaves develop yellowish-brown spots and feel crisp to the touch.

Likewise, over-watered plants look droopy with dark leaves; their base feels soggy. In this instance, you should leave them in good airflow. Drying them out is their only hope of surviving.

Once a week is typically enough to soak air plants, as long as they are misted regularly between.

The variety of Tillandsia might prefer more or less frequent quenching; the instructions will enlighten you.

Light

do air plants need light

Air plants need lots of light to survive, but many species can’t tolerate too much direct sunlight.

Consider light flow when choosing the perfect location for your Tillandsia.

Try and keep them within 3-5ft. of a window if it receives lots of full sun throughout the day. That way, the plants get maximum light without the fear of scorching the leaves and dehydrating the plant.

They also thrive under artificial light. In darker rooms, situate your plants close to lamps or other light sources.

Try and rotate the position of your Tillandsia occasionally, move them to places with more light to see them flourish.

As a rule of thumb, air plants with fewer trichomes usually have lower lighting needs.

If you’re growing air plants outdoors, ensure they have sufficient shaded cover from direct sunlight.

Air Plant Maintenance

pruning air plant

Should you Prune an Air Plant?

Although low maintenance and resilient plants, there may come a time when their appearance changes, leaf tips go brown, leaves die or dry out.

Leaves that die at the base of the plant should cause little concern. It is part of the life cycle of an air plant and often signifies new growth.

First, check no new shoots are growing beneath the dead foliage. ‘Pups’ prefer the shelter of large leaves, and if discovered, should be left to grow undercover for a while longer.

If there are no pups, gently pull the leaves off; they should come away with ease.

Leaves turn brown at the tip of air plants if it receives too little water or too much light. Trim the leaves back for addressing the problem.

Small scissors are ideal for the job. Cut as little away as possible; air plants need as much surface area as possible to capture nutrients from the air.

Always trim at an angle; this gives the plant a more natural appearance.

Some air plants still have their root system attached; it is acceptable to trim these off if you won’t use them to glue to a surface.

Be cautious not to cut into the base of the plant.

Fertilizing Air Plants

air plant fertilizer

We recommend feeding Tillandsias occasionally; specialist Bromeliad fertilizers provide the perfect balance of nutrients.

Once a month is sufficient; the plants only need a small amount to give them a boost.

Caring for Air Plants in Terrariums

Displays of air plants on rocks, driftwood, and other mediums look impressive in terrariums but caring for them is more awkward.

Try and choose a tank that allows easy access to the plants. It is ideal if you can reach in and lift them out for adequate watering. Otherwise, remember to mist frequently to create necessary humidity.

Larger terrariums allow for better airflow; therefore, any water should dry out within a couple of hours. More compact tanks struggle to dry out; be wary not to overwater.

Final Thoughts

Now that you know how to care for air plants, you can confidently have them adorning many surfaces in your home.

It doesn’t take an age to calculate the optimal water/air/light balance of individual plants; especially if you have selected a variety that best suits your environment.

Anthony Marsh
Anthony Marsh is a writer with deep roots in the soil of western New Hampshire. His first experiences with gardening were at the age of 10 where his parents allowed him to plant and cultivate his first vegetable garden. Twenty years later he’s continued with his passion for gardening and actively rescues abandoned plant life.