How to Care for Air Plants

Written by Elizabeth B.

When we say “air plant,” we’re talking about the more than 650 species of evergreen, perennial, flowering plants in the genus Tillandsia. Air plants naturally grow in the dry, warm climates of the American Southwest and from the deserts of northern Mexico to Argentina’s mountains. 

Tillandsia plants don’t grow in soil and instead prefer to “plant” themselves on anything convenient. In the wild, you can find them clinging to bare rocks, tree branches, telephone wires, and anyplace else where their specialized leaves can rapidly absorb water from the air. 

Air plants are unlike any other indoor plant. They’re great for beginner gardeners because they’re unusually hardy and tolerant. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t need care. As long as you know how to keep these unique plants thriving, they’ll reward you with blooms, babies, and unique beauty.

Water

How to water air plants and when to do so are the most frequently asked questions about their care. Here is a 3-step watering process for air plants, but we encourage you to use this guide as only a starting point. How much water your plant needs will significantly depend on its environment, especially temperature and humidity. 

  1. Every 1-2 weeks, soak your plant for 5-10 minutes in filtered water, rainwater, bottled water, or clean aquarium/pond water. Tap water is fine, too but make sure that you’ve allowed it to sit overnight so that the chlorine dissipates. 
  2. Turn the plant upside down (“root” side up) on a towel and allow it to dry completely. You want to ensure that your plant dries relatively quickly. Air plants will rot if left wet longer than about 3 hours. If your plant still feels damp after a few hours, move the towel to a sunny spot or near a fireplace to help with the process.
  3. Every week, mist your air plant with a spray bottle. You want the leaves to be damp but not dripping.

Watering Tips 

  • If you follow this process for about a month and the ends of the plant’s leaves start to turn crispy or brown, you’re underwatering. Increase the frequency of soaking and spraying. 
  • Remember that fireplaces and heaters make the air dryer so if you have these heat sources in your home, plan on increasing your watering. 
  • Do all of your watering in the morning. If you water plants late in the day, they’ll most likely stay wet for longer, and their nightly respiring (energy production for growth) pattern will be off. 

Light

Rooms with southern and eastern facing windows are ideal for air plants because they’ll get lots of indirect sunlight all day. Other rooms are OK as well but be careful with the intense mid-day light of western-facing windows. And if your room faces to the north, put your plant very close to a window that gets direct sunlight. 

The more humid the room, the more light your air plant can tolerate. Bathrooms are fantastic places for your plant to live because the natural humidity of that room will provide most of their water. Just make sure that your bathroom also gets lots of sunlight. 

Air plants can thrive in artificial light, but not just any light bulb will do. If you want your air plants to decorate your windowless office or basement studio, place the plant no more than 3 feet from either a fluorescent light or a grow light. The regular incandescent bulb in your floor lamp right now doesn’t provide the right light that your plant needs to photosynthesize. If you get a grow light, set the timer for 12 hours. If using fluorescent light, be sure that you leave it on for that long, so your plant gets the right amount of artificial light. 

Does My Air Plant Need Food?

Technically, no, it doesn’t need fertilizer to grow. But your air plant will thrive with a monthly application of fertilizer. Mix a bromeliad fertilizer with water and add it to your monthly watering routine. Read the instructions on the fertilizer so that you don’t overdo the ratio. Air plant leaves are especially susceptible to fertilizer burn.

Life Cycle

Tillandsia plants’ lifecycle includes blooming, creating baby plants called “pups,” and those pups eventually forming clumps. If you enjoy propagating other plants such as succulents, you’ll love the process with air plants as well.

Blooming

The bittersweet truth about the lifecycle of air plants is that they only flower once in their life. As soon as the bloom dies, the plan begins to decline as well. However, the blooms are spectacular, albeit short-lived, lasting a few days to a few weeks.

Pups & Clumping

Directly before or after an air plant blooms, it will send out 2-8 pups. Do not remove pups until they are ⅓-½ the size of the mother plant. Just like human babies, the mother plant is providing vital nutrients to the baby in early life. As soon as you remove pups, you should care for the babies just as you do adult air plants.

If you do not separate pups from the mother plant, they will eventually form “clumps.” Clumps are multiple pups that have grown together. You should care for them in the same way as adult plants. Clumps are especially lovely when hung from the ceiling.    

Best Type of Air Plant Containers

We know that air plants housed in aeriums (aka terrariums for air plants) look nice. However, that environment is not ideal for the plant. The main reason is that air plants prefer unfettered access to as much air as possible, and the inside of a small glass bulb is not the airiest of environments. Aeriums also tend to get hot and humid, a dangerous combination for a plant that rots quickly when left wet. 

If you must use an aerium, choose one with an opening that’s as wide as the container. Wide tops will allow for maximum airflow. You should also keep your aerium away from harsh direct sunlight (like on a window sill in a western facing room) so that it doesn’t get overheated.

The best housing for an air plant is mounted or any other unenclosed option that mimics their natural habitat’s openness. There are so many fantastic DIY options for encouraging these unique tiny plants and their offspring to thrive in your home. 

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