Is My Air Plant Dead? Signs and Symptoms

Air plants are unique; They don’t need any soil to grow, and they take on some weird and wonderful forms.

Unlike house plants, many species aren’t vibrant shades of green but gentle hues of silver and gray. It can make it difficult to tell if your air plant is dead or cycling through a different phase of its lifespan.

The biggest killer of air plants is rotting. Although they need plenty of water, any excess that pools within the plant’s core stagnates and rots it from the inside out.

Conversely, air plants sometimes die of dehydration. It occurs when the owner assumes that they absorb sufficient moisture from the atmosphere and doesn’t give them a supplementary drink.

It is possible to bring many Tillandsia back from the brink of death, but if the plant disintegrates in your hands, then it has gone too far.

What are Air Plants?

Air plants are epiphytic. They don’t grow in soil; instead, they absorb necessary nutrients and moisture through tiny cells in their leaves, called trichomes.

They attach themselves to a host in their native habitat, typically the desert, mountain, or rainforest regions of Mexico and South America. They aren’t parasites; they don’t take anything from the host to survive.

Air plant is the common name for Tillandsia, the largest genus of the Bromeliad (pineapple) family. There are 650+ species of air plants, and every single one flowers only once in their lifetime.

Is My Air Plant Dead – Consider the Stage of its Life Cycle

The blooming phase of an air plant occurs when it has hit full maturity and is ready to reproduce. As the flower fades, tiny off-sets appear at the base of the plant. These are pups – over time, each grows into a replica of the parent plant.

air plant pup
An Air plant Pup

From the moment an air plant flowers, it is in the process of dying. How long flowers last varies by species; some live for days, others for weeks.

An adult plant might live for months with healthy clusters of pups attached; remove them when the parent shows signs of flagging. By taking them off earlier (when they have reached one-third the size of the parent) the mother focuses its energy on keeping herself healthy for as long as possible.

It is a natural progression that air plants die after reproduction. If your Tillandsia has flowered, had new growth, but looks in ill health, consider this the end of the road.

Turn your attention to nurturing the pups into adulthood.

Air Plant Rot

Drainage is a problem for air plants, particularly the species that grow in bulb form.

Water collects and, without sufficient airflow to dry it, bacteria and fungus attack the base of the plant.

The first sign of dry rot in an air plant is deep purple and black patches at its heart.

air plant rot

Try lying it on paper tissue in a well-aerated, warm room, but if the rot has set in, it is irreversible; the plant is dead.

It is imperative that, after every watering session, you gently shake your air plants to remove excess water. Then leave them to dry thoroughly before returning them to their display.

Air Plant Dehydration

It is possible to revive an air plant in most cases of dehydration. If you have absent-mindedly missed a couple of watering sessions or been away from home for some time; a few deep soaks should return the plant to vitality.

Tillandsia leaves change their appearance when the plant is particularly thirsty. Their color fades, and they often curl much more than usual.

dehydrated tillandsia

Those leaves that are stiff may turn soft. Those that are regularly soft may turn brittle and coarse.

If the leaves are so brittle they crumble, the plant has been dry for too long, has dehydrated and, will almost certainly be impossible to revive.

The Effects of Toxins on Air Plants

Municipal water contains a combination of chemicals to ensure it is safe for us to drink. Over time, chlorine can poison air plants, causing long-term damage and even death.

Pond, aquarium, and rainwater are the safest water types to use to irrigate your plants. If none are available, leave a bowl of tap water out overnight for the chemicals to dissipate naturally.

Other toxins that lead to the death of an air plant are exposed copper, zinc, or boron, chemicals found in pressure-treated wood, and rust. The salts used in water softeners are also lethal for Tillandsias.

Air plants cannot tolerate the excessive nitrogen levels found in house plant fertilizers. Always use specialist Bromeliad or Tillandsia food to avoid their untimely death.

Signs that an Air Plant is Dead

dead air plant

If you are unsure if your air plant is dead, perhaps its appearance has changed, or it seems to be taking an age to flower, use this checklist:

The leaves are curlier, and the color has faded

Your plant is probably dehydrated; soak head down overnight in a bowl of Tillandsia safe water. Repeat every 3-4 days until signs of recovery. ALWAYS dry it thoroughly between watering.

The tips of the leaves are brown

Again, browning at the tips typically means that the plant is thirsty. Prune the tips at an angle; that way, the plant needn’t waste its energy trying to nurse them back to health. Repeat the soaking advice as above.

The base of the plant is purple and black

Your plant has dry rot, probably caused by sitting in water for too long. It is unlikely to recover, but try drying it out before giving up all hope.

The Tillandsia crumbles in your hand

Often due to extreme dehydration or over-exposure to nitrogen or copper, the plant has gone too far and has died.

The flowers have died, the pups have grown

An air plant lives to reproduce. In the wild, the bright flowers and fragrances attract the pollinators. Indoors, the plants reproduce by growing new shoots. Afterward, the adult plant has achieved its purpose and can naturally fade away. It is size, species, and care-dependent, so might take weeks or months.

Final Thoughts

With sufficient light, water, air, and TLC, Tillandsias live for many years. Too much or too little of any of these factors are harmful to their health.

One positive thing about the death of an air plant is, it is often by old age. Whereby Tillandsias leave behind several mini-replicas of themselves to nurture.

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.