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.
The number one leading cause of death for air plants by new owners is under-watering. This is closely followed by overwatering. A persistent myth suggests that these plants require no watering at all, pulling everything they need from the atmosphere. While this may be true should you live in a climate like Tillandsia’s native habitat and they are outdoors, for the rest of us some watering is required. No need to worry, with these simple watering tips your plants will thrive. Choose one of the methods below to be a pro at watering your 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 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 your now.
I'll admit that for many years my air plants drank fancier water than me. I would tirelessly haul jugs of filtered water for my growing collection to enjoy while I drank from the tap. Tillandsia are used to PH balanced rainwater with just the right mix of nutrients. A nice filtered water provides just the right balance, and I would even run my own PH tests to ensure was nicely balanced between acidic and alkaline.
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.
Once your air plant has taken its bath or shower, it's time to dry off. Just like people, air plants don’t enjoy staying wet for too long. Within 4 hours, at a maximum, they should be completely dry again to avoid rot. Sitting water in your Tillandsia is a sure path to a dead plant, keep your plants dry annd don't give them excess water! Depending on the species, certain rosettes can collect water in their center. You should gently shake them upside down to dump the water out. Unfortunately, once the center of an air plant is rotten, it’s time for a Tillandsia funeral.
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!
Air plants are plants, of course they need light!
Tillandsia, like all plants, requires sunlight to photosynthesize. In their natural habitat, the southern United States through Central and South America, they inhabit a wide range of environments from deserts to oak woodlands to rainforests. In general, xeric (high sun/low water) species evolved to have silvery grey appearance with fluffy trichomes on their leaves to reflect sunlight and conserve water. The mesic (lower sun/higher water) species tend to have larger, greener, and smoother leaves to better capture limited sunlight in the forest canopy.
No sunscreen needed—Bright, filtered sunlight is the rule of thumb across all species. Within a few feet of a window or under any standard growlight if indoors. When outside in a drier/hotter climate, the morning sun or under a tree or overhang is best. By the coast, or in a milder climate, more sunlight will be welcomed.
You can use artificial light (fluorescent light is the best) but they should be 6" to 35" away from the lights and only under light for about 12 hours per day. Use an automatic timer to remember!
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.
The most under-appreciated contributor to air plant health seems obvious. It's fresh air and circulation! Studies have shown Tillandsia thrive with extremely high levels of toxins absorbed in their leaves (a good sign for their ability to clean and cope with our urban air quality challenges). In general though, a tillandsia left in a dusty corner of your home where fresh air never enters is less than ideal. Better to crack a window or rotate indoors and outside weather permitting.
If good sunlight and regular watering is happening, air plants can survive incredibly tough environments both inside and out. But, give them a little fresh air to see them really take off. This isn’t to discourage those in less hospitable climates. We have had customers share photos of their thriving Airplantman installations from Stockholm to Ontario, Chicago and New York.
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 leaf damage possible and death guaranteed at freezing. Temperatures significantly higher than 80 F can be tolerable with the right mix of shade and water.
Success and failure is guaranteed to be a part of your air plant experience. I have hovered over a single plant, trying to anticipate its every need, only to find it dead from unknown causes. Meanwhile, behind the potting bench I have found some long forgotten Tillandsia thriving in total neglect without a care in the world.
This is the unexpected joy and frustration of gardening—while science and experience take us so far sometimes things happen that are beyond our understanding. This isn’t to make air plant care sound like a mythical journey into the unknown. But, it kind of is. It’s this development of a relationship, sensitivity to another living beings needs, and our clumsy attempts to fulfill them that is often the most meaningful part.
Embrace the journey. Forgive your inevitable mistakes with grace and the thoughtful reflection of a scientist, not as an emotionally fraught parent (although the later will likely creep in). We’ve all wanted to rant at a poorly performing plant—After I did so much this is how you repay me, with dead leaves! But it’s important to remain positive and upbeat. How your plant grows is not the end of the world!
I tell all my customers who say to me, "My name is __________ and I have killed a Tillandsia", that the first thing to do is forgive themselves try again. Learn from past experience so as to not repeat the same mistakes. Making new ones is far more fun and interesting! From this trial and error we learn to grow together with our plant friends. The rewarding relationship between you and your air plant can be an endless source of satisfaction and a welcome connection to the natural world.