Why is My Air Plant Turning Brown? Reasons Explained

Air plants’ ever-growing popularity is partly due to their low-maintenance care needs. It is frustrating when the leaf tips turn brown, and the plant appears near to death. It isn’t always a sign that you haven’t cared well enough for your Tillandsia; often, it is just the opposite.

Over-watering and fertilizing are two of the biggest air plant killers; you might be killing them with kindness. Learn how to treat air plant leaves that have turned brown and how to prevent the problem from reoccurring.

What are Air Plants?

Air plants are the common name for Tillandsia, a genus of the Bromeliad family.

They are native to large portions of central and southern United States and much of Mexico.

Air plants are epiphytes; they don’t grow in soil. They rely on a mass of tiny, hair-like cells on their leaves to absorb moisture and nutrients from the atmosphere. The amount of ‘trichomes’ varies depending upon the species of plant and its natural climate.

Tillandsias use their small root structure to anchor themselves to a substrate, typically a tree, rock, cliff face, or cacti.

The plant isn’t parasitic; it doesn’t drain anything from the host; they happily co-exist individually.

Why is My Air Plant Turning Brown?

The primary reason that air plants turn brown is that they’re thirsty.

Their native habitat usually has moderate to high humidity levels; conditions that should be replicated for them to thrive indoors.

Air plants need misting with water 2-3 times a week; they also require a lengthy soaking or dunking session where they fully rehydrate. These processes are carried out at different intervals, depending on the species, the environment, and the season.

Tillandsia displayed in seashells often suffer from rot; the roots sit in the excess water pooled in the base of the shell.

why is my air plant turning brown
Air Plant Root Rot

Extreme temperatures are another factor that causes leaves to turn brown. Too much direct sun can scorch them, making them brittle. Very cold temperatures can attack the plant’s core, killing all of the leaves, something from which it can’t recover.

If you irrigate your Tillandsia with water direct from the faucet, you may do more harm than good. The plants are unused to the chemical and chlorine content.

Finally, the Tillandsia may be reaching old age; turning brown is a natural part of the cycle of an air plant nearing the end of its life.

If your plant has successfully bloomed and grown offsets, it is likely time to remove the pups and nurture new life.

Leaf Tips Turning Brown

The browning of the leaf tips in air plants is very common – especially on species that have long delicate leaves like the T. Ionantha. However, don’t fret as this is a common occurrence when your plants arrive at your home.

browning leaf tips
T. Ionantha Rubra Leaf Tips Browning

When Tillandsia are stressed – they’re adapting to a new environment – they may display browning leaf tips.

Another common reason for browning leaf tips is sun burn – meaning your air plant may be getting too much sun; Air plants enjoy indirect sun light as apposed to direct sunlight all day.

The browning of the leaf tips can also occur from not watering your plant enough – meaning the plant wants water more often. This is actually a common misconception about air plants is that they don’t need water. However, air plants should be watered weekly.

Remedies for Ailing Air Plants

Expect air plants to hold their shape and form when picked up. If the plant crumbles, then it could be beyond saving.

However, if just a few of the out leaves are brown, it is worthwhile nursing it back to good health.

Lush green leaves at the heart of the plant are a good sign. Gently pull the brown leaves from the plant; they will easily come away. The Tillandsia can then focus all of its energies on keeping its healthier parts alive.

If the plant feels more brittle than usual, it is safe to assume it is dehydrated.

Place it top-down in a bowl of tepid water and leave it in a warm place overnight.

The following day, hold it upside down and gently shake it to remove excess water.

Leave it in a well-aerated space to dry out; inside a colander or on some sheets of paper towel works well. Don’t be tempted to return it to the display until it is thoroughly dry; stagnant settled water is a major cause of root rot and browning leaves.

You should see a marked improvement in the plant within a day or two. After a week, give it another 4-hour soak if not fully revived.

Terrarium-based Air Plants

Never display air plants in sealed containers; as their name suggests, they need plenty of air circulation to survive.

tillandsia terrarium

If your sick plant is in an open-sided terrarium or jar, it will benefit from spending one day each week out of the container. A well-aerated room should soon have the leaves looking perkier.

Pruning Sick Air Plants

pruning air plant

If there are only signs of browning on the tips of a few leaves, it is safe to trim them off.

Use sharp nail scissors and trim the dead areas considerately. Cut at an angle to give the leaf a natural form.

The plant will concentrate all of its effort on the thriving leaves and soon return to full health.

The Best Water for Air Plants

soaking air plants

Non-chlorinated or rainwater collected from a butt is the safest way to irrigate air plants.

Pond and aquarium water is packed full of healthy nutrients they need to exist.

If you have no option other than water from the faucet, ensure you run it into a bowl and leave it standing overnight.

It allows most of the chlorine to dissipate and hopefully prevent leaf tips from turning brown in the future.

Watering

Air plants need plenty of water to survive. Occasional misting alone isn’t sufficient; they need a long drink to rehydrate.

  • Soak plants weekly in hot and humid conditions
  • Even during winter, air plants need a thorough soaking every 3-4 weeks
  • If the leaves look swollen, reduce the watering frequency; pay attention to what the plant tells you.
  • Mist regularly
  • Always allow plants to fully dry

Air

It should come as no surprise that air plants need air. Terrarium and bottle displays might look impressive, but without aeration, plants soon turn brown and die.

  • Only use open-sided terrariums for Tillandsia
  • If the container is lidded, take it off occasionally to let more airflow
  • Consider removing the plants for one day a week

Light

Air plants need up to 12-hours of light daily. For the most part, they prefer indirect, filtered light, although some species tolerate some direct sun.

  • During summer, position the plants within 3-4 feet of a window
  • During winter, provide the plant with plenty of artificial light to substitute for the lack of natural light.

Feeding

air plant fertilizer

Air plants appreciate a spritz of specialist Tillandsia fertilizer once a month. An additional spray at the beginning of the blooming phase gives the plant a boost (at the most energy-intensive period of its life cycle).

Final Thoughts

Air plants need more than just air to survive; they need prime temperature and lighting conditions, along with plenty of water to create good humidity.

When the balance isn’t right, air plant leaves turn brown, shrivel and curl up.

Thankfully, this doesn’t always signal the end for an air plant; there are several simple methods to nursing the plant back to good health.

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.