Air plants or Tillandsia are a genus of epiphytic plants with the incredible ability to live without soil. Inhabiting niches in the ecosystem where their terrestrial bound relatives don’t dare to go, air plants have limitless opportunities for display and design. However, certain care requirements must be met for Tillandsia to thrive and flourish. A lack of soil shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of care. Below is a summary of everything we have learned over nearly two decades of living and learning with these unique plants.
When you first lay eyes on an air plant you might be intrigued or confused, and then definitely need to have one…or maybe ten. The first time I saw an air plant, the waving arms of Tillandsia caput-medsae are what caught my eye. Learning that this charismatic alien-like plant grew floating in air (and had over 600 species relatives in all shapes and sizes) got me hooked. The question became: How many could I afford and hoard into a collection?? How I was going to keep this plant collection alive as I traveled between a variety of inhospitable environments was simply a concern for another day.
Home with a newly acquired bunch of Tillandsia, reality begins to set in. What do I need to do to keep this thing alive again? Definitely should have paid more attention at the store, but couldn’t stop looking at how cool my new plant friends are. Do they need light and water? How should I display it? Maybe in this dark room somewhere out of reach? Perfect... or not so much.
Air plants, like all plants, definitely need light and water. I’m amazed at the frequent misnomer that Tillandsia receive everything they need from the air. While air plants in their natural habitat can survive in surprisingly harsh conditions (I’ve seen them living in the thorns of cacti!) the challenges of apartment and home living require some intervention to ensure success. While your exact species and environment will require some refinement, below we share the general rules of air plant care we've developed at Airplantman Studios over the years. Prepare for success and failure as you grow your relationship with these miraculous plants.
Submerging your air plant is the best way to keep them happy, particularly indoors. People are often surprised that you can place an airborne plant completely underwater, but they love it! This is the surefire way to completely re-hydrate your air plant. The entire leaf surface opens up to allow water to enter the base of the plant leading the way for a remarkable transformation. Curly leaves will often straighten and, while not having fleshy leaves like succulents, there is a fullness to your Tillandsia after soaking that is quite noticeable.
HOW MUCH While even a short bath of thirty minutes can work miracles on a dry tillandsia, they can hold their breath for up to 12-24 hours. Our rule of thumb is soak once a week for 6-12 hours. We soak ours for around 12 hours typically. We've even forgotten about them a few times without losing too many. Be careful with a few of the xeric species like tectorum and xerographica. These are more sensitive and prefer spraying.
Tip: Ensure your soaking container is clean and not used for soaps or other cleaners. Small residue left behind can damage your plants. We are working on the Airplantman soaking tub, coming soon!
Spraying your air plant until dripping wet is another option for watering. The key thing to remember is this isn’t a light misting. Your plant should be completely drenched to be watered properly. While spraying your air plant is an effective way to water it, the frequency will need to be much greater than the deeper re-hydration that comes from soaking.
HOW MUCH Spray until dripping wet 2-3 times per week. If you live in Arizona this will be more, if you live in Hawaii less. The two most important factors to determine when and how much to water are whether your plant is inside or outside and what kind of light it receives. Lots of sun means they will appreciate more water. Indoors wherever there is heat, air conditioning, and generally dry conditions means regular watering is a must.
Tip: Tillandsia don’t love to be handled. Besides our clumsy hands snapping the occasional leaf, the oils in our fingers actually clog the air plant’s sensitive leaves. All Airplantman designs keep this in mind so that it is easy to give your Tillandsia the water it needs without touching it directly!
Tip: Watch your plants' leaves for clues on whether they are thirsty or not. Curly leaves are drier and a healthy white fuzz actually means your plant is healthy, not necessarily drying out. Brown leaf tips and a general shriveled appearance are other clues you are under-watering. Take note of how your plant looks right after a good soak—How does that compare to now? Each plant is different so pay attention to what yours is telling you now.
Tapwater often has high levels of chlorine and minerals such as calcium which can clog air plant’s sensitive leaves. Interestingly, distilled water is death for air plants as it pulls all the nutrients out of the plant through osmosis. Nursery growers typically use reverse osmosis systems to ensure their plants receive the best possible water and ensure the best results.
But after many years and aching arms I thought my plants better toughen up because I can’t take it anymore. I turned the hose on them and haven’t looked back. Every time it rains though I make sure to bring all my tillandsia outside so they can get a nice clean shower. You can use spring water or pond water for similar benefits.
Tip: Chlorine levels in tap water dissipate within 15 minutes or so. Try filling your soaking bin with water and wait for this to happen before adding your air plants.
Tip: Place your drying tillandsia on a towel somewhere they get light and ideally some air circulation to help dry their leaves. Giving them a light shake first holding your air plant upside down helps get things started!
Tip: Give your plants a transition period. It is important when bringing home your new plants to consider the sun exposure your plant has been receiving. A plant recently arrived from a dim display area can be shocked or burned by suddenly placing it in harsh afternoon sunlight. A transition period is helpful so the plant can adapt to its new surroundings. Over time though increasing the amount of sunlight will greatly improve plant health, longevity, and blooming/blushing.
Tip: Temperature wise, air plants are similar to people. Where people are comfortable your Tillandsia likely will be too. A range of 60–80 F is ideal, but we keep ours outside down into the low 50s F without issue. Once temperature dips into the 40s F I get worried with possible leaf damage and death guaranteed at freezing. Temperatures significantly higher than 80 F can be tolerable with the right mix of shade and water.