Air Plant Care Tips

Air plant care: Tending, fertilizing, and watering Tillandsia

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Air plants have stepped into the houseplant spotlight for both their ease of care and the many creative ways they can be displayed. Head to your favorite local nursery and you’re sure to find sea shells, glass globes, and wooden frames filled with air plants on display. These free-living plants are fairly unique in the plant world, but just because they don’t need to be planted in a pot of soil, doesn’t mean they don’t have care requirements. Though it isn’t difficult, air plant care is surprisingly specific.

What are air plants?

Before we discuss air plant care, let’s take a quick look at what air plants actually are. When you know a little more about how and where these plants naturally grow, the following air plant care tips make a lot more sense.

Air plant varieties for gardeners

There are many different varieties of air plants available to indoor gardeners.

Air plants are members of the bromeliad family. They’re a large group of plants in the genus Tillandsia, of which there are hundreds of different species. Air plants are epiphytes that use their small roots to attach themselves to the branches of trees and shrubs, rather than growing in the ground. Because they don’t rob nutrients from their host plant, air plants are not considered parasites. Instead, they just use their host as an anchor and a place to live.

Air plants absorb moisture and nutrients through their leaves, instead of through their roots. Any roots present on members of the Tillandsia genus are used for securing the plant to the tree on which it lives. Some varieties of air plants are large with broad, strap-like leaves, while others are tiny with thread-like leaves.

Native to the southern U.S., Central and South America, and Mexico, air plants live in a wide range of climates. But, no species survive winters where temperatures dip much below 40 degrees F. Since air plants absorb moisture through their leaves, they prefer warm, humid conditions. Most homes are not humid enough for air plants, especially in the winter months. So, caring for air plants means keeping the plants regularly watered.

How to take care of air plants in your home

The diversity of air plants is amazing!

How to water air plants

The first step of proper air plant care is to ensure the leaves receive the right amount of moisture. Many people think that air plants can live on air alone, hence their common name. But that’s definitely not the case. Instead, the name air plant comes from the fact that the plants don’t require soil to live, instead deriving their moisture and nutrition from the air.

Since your home probably isn’t a humid forest where air plant watering occurs via the rain and the relative humidity, you’ll have to water your air plants in one of two ways.

  • Watering air plants via misting: For this method, use a spray bottle or plant mister to spritz air plants with water every day or two. After spraying the entire plant, place the damp air plant on a towel to dry for a few hours before putting it back in its decorative container or arrangement.
Watering tips for air plants

A daily misting is a great way to water air plants.

  • How to water air plants in a bowl or sink of water: This is the best method of watering air plants as it really allows the water to soak into the plants. To water air plants this way, fill a bowl or sink with water and float the air plants in the water for 20 minutes to an hour every week. Then, take the plants out of the water, tip them upside down so any excess water can drain away, and then place them on a towel to dry before putting them back on display.
Tips for watering and caring for air plants.

Water air plants weekly by soaking them in the sink.

What is the best water to use to water air plants?

There are several different kinds of water you can use to water air plants, regardless of whether you’re misting them or soaking them. Here are some tips for the type of water to use when watering air plants.

  1. Do not use softened water as the salt present in it can build up in the plant leaves.
  2. Do not use distilled water.
  3. If using tap water, allow it to sit at room temperature for 24 hours for the chlorine to dissipate.
  4. Spring water or rain water is the best choice.
  5. You can also use aquarium or pond water to water air plants as it contains several dissolved nutrients, but do not apply any other fertilizers if you water with aquarium or pond water.
Caring for air plants in the home

Use chlorine-free water to irrigate air plants.

How often to water air plants depends on how dry your house is. It also depends on the conditions of the room your air plants are kept in. Bathrooms and kitchen make great air plant homes due to their high moisture levels after showers, dish washing, and other humidity-generating activities. Rooms where fans are left constantly running are poor choices for air plants. The moving air causes the plant to dry out more quickly.

Signs that your air plant needs to be watered more frequently include curling or rolling leaves, leaves that fold together, or browning of the outermost leaves. Typically the green-leaved air plant varieties need to be watered more frequently than the gray-leaved ones.

If you keep your air plant inside a vessel, such as a terrarium or glass globe, take it out prior to watering. Then allow the air plant to fully dry before returning it to its decorative setting.

Caring for air plants through the seasons.

Use your creativity and display air plants in many fun ways.

How much light do air plants need?

The next step in air plant care is to consider how much light to give your plant. For air plants, bright but filtered light is best. A west, east, or south-facing window will do. If you don’t think your air plant is getting enough light, supplemental lighting via a fluorescent light or a table-top grow light helps.

Tillandsias enjoy spending the summer outdoors, but be sure to put them in a location with filtered sunlight. Direct sun during the hot summer months can “fry” them. And be sure to move the plants back indoors before fall’s first frost.

How to fertilize air plants

Fertilizing air plants isn’t a difficult task, nor is it an essential one. Though a monthly or quarterly application of fertilizer helps air plants thrive, if you skip this step, it’s not the end of the world, especially if you water air plants with rain water or water from an aquarium or pond.

To fertilize air plants, use an air plant-specific fertilizer or a bromeliad fertilizer a few times a year. Another option is to use a regular, water soluble houseplant fertilizer at 1/4 of the recommended strength.

Add the diluted fertilizer to your irrigation water, and the plants are fed and watered at the same time. Do this regardless of whether you water via misting or by soaking the plants in water.

Fertilizing and watering tillandsia air plants.

Fertilizing Tillandsia isn’t difficult, but you must use the right type of fertilizer.

More air plant care tips

Other than choosing the correct location, and properly watering and fertilizing air plants, there are only a few other air plant care tips to consider.

  • If any leaves at the base of the plant die, simply pull them off with your fingers or cut them off with a sharp pair of plant grooming shears.
  • If any leaves turn brown at the tips, cut the brown, dead growth off with the grooming shears. Do it at an angle, so the trimmed leaf blends in with the healthy ones.
  • Keep air plants away from both cold and hot drafts that dry them out.
  • The ideal temperature for air plants is between 50 and 90 degrees F.
How to care for air plants.

Remove dead or dying leaves from air plants by twisting them off or using a pair of plant shears.

Do air plants bloom?

Lucky houseplant lovers who learn how to care for air plants properly are often gifted with blooms from their air plants. Most species of Tillandsia bloom only once in their life. Blooms spikes can be pink, purple, white, orange, red, or yellow, and typically occur in late winter or spring.

Sometime around the time of bloom, air plants also produce offsets, or young daughter plants. Separate these offsets from the mother plant by twisting or cutting them off. Move the young offset to a new location when it’s about half the size of the mother plant.

As you now see, just because air plants are considered low maintenance doesn’t mean you can completely ignore them. Proper air plant care is essential to enjoying these unique little plants for many years to come.

For more on growing great houseplants check out the following posts:
Types of houseplant bugs: Who they are and what to do about them
Instructions for repotting an orchid
Easy projects for mini holiday houseplants
Houseplant fertilization tips and schedule
Make your own potting soil for houseplants

Do you grow air plants? Tell us about your experiences in the comment section below.

Air Plant Care: Tending, Watering, and Fertilizing Tillandsia. #indoorgardening #airplants

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37 Responses to Air plant care: Tending, fertilizing, and watering Tillandsia

  1. E says:

    I have some small ceramic pots that have no hole in the bottom. Would it work to layer small pebbles in the bottom, and add water to below the top of the pebbles, before setting the plant on top of the pebbles to increase humidity in dry winter? I would think that misting would still be required, but wonder if anyone has tried that to increase local humidit.

  2. Leila Gill says:

    Thank you for this clear, well-written and illustrated, to-the-point lesson. Very helpful, and kind of you to take the time to put together.

  3. Annette says:

    I am presently watching my recently purchased air plant bloom. It is the second blooming air plant that I have had. My first one bloomed just after my mother passed away a year and a half ago. I have taken a picture each day of the blooming process. They are truly beautiful when you can expand the picture and view the intricate details of the flower. Once it is done blooming how long can I expect it to live or produce pups?

  4. libby johnson says:

    I have a large spherical beaker that I’d like to put air plants in. The opening is about 1.25″ wide, so once I put the plants in, I won’t be able to take them out. I was going to put marbles in the bottom; I was going to water the plants with a mister and water will settle below the plants in the marbles. Will this work? I’m concerned because the care instructions say to let the plants dry after watering. Thanks!

  5. Janelle Church says:

    My tillandsia threw off a spike that bloomed and has produced fluffy seeds. Will those grow another plant? And if so how would I plant them? I was amazed!

    • That’s exciting! I’ve never had one produce viable seeds, but it would be worth giving it a try. The seeds won’t need a cold period to germinate. Don’t cover them with soil as I believe they need light to germinate. Just press them down onto the surface of a fresh pot of sterile potting mix and cover the pot with a clear plastic baggie to keep the humidity high. Bright but not direct sun. And cross your fingers! let us know how it works out.

    • Chris Taphorn says:

      I just started looking into air plants and from what I can tell, the best way to start these would probably be a super humid, but not wet, carnivorous plant type substrate. Carnivorous plants thrive in loose, soggy, nutrient-free mediums (tons of recipes out there). I would make a base layer of wet coco coir (2″ thick), middle layer hydroton (.1″ thick), top with perlite until just tops of hydroton are showing. Place seed on top and leave under a cfl for 18/6.

      My 17 pennies…lol

  6. Daniel Faulkenham says:

    Janelle – I do know that Tillandsia can be propagated on a bundle of twigs and sphagnum moss that have been tied together, soaked (envision something resembling a sage smudge stick) and then press the seeds into the damp bundle. Then place this into either a mason jar with a lid or a plastic bag that has air in it to keep it voluminous. I learned this technique from The Victory Garden’s indoor garden book they released in the 80’s lol ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Cynthia Quinones says:

    Tillandsia balbisiana
    I have come upon this Northern Needleleaf air plant growing wild recently in my mother in laws property.. after carefully evaluation i have come to notice that the fuzzy seeds release from the boom as it dies off is actually hundreds of tiny air plants attaching them self to the fuzziness of the parent plant. I have not taken the time to watch one grown but i have seen them in different stages of growth since they are growing so much here in Florida. Lucky me.

  8. Sara says:

    Hi, I recently bought two plants and they both bloomed.
    Iโ€™m not sure I understood what will it happen now.
    Will they dry off and die while (hopefully) producing offsprings?
    Thanks for your post and answer ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Sometimes the mother plant dies after bloom and does not form offsets. But other times, offsets are formed either before or after bloom. It depends on the species and how the plant is cared for.

  9. Hawke Hughes says:

    I love this article. I’ve currently started selling air plant designs & thought I’d like to send as much info with the buyer as possible including a type of fertilizer for them. You answered my questions perfectly . Thank you so much. There is never such a thing as too much info ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. Janice Spears says:

    Great article! I just bought my first air plants. The instructions that came with said misting isnโ€™t enough. ๐Ÿคทโ€โ™€๏ธ I think I will soak them. The problem is I also bought an arrangement with the air plants glued on there. I guess I will have to spray those. They are on bark or corkish kind of material. What are your thoughts? Either way, Iโ€™m excited to go on this adventure!

    • For air plants that are glued onto something, if possible, soak the entire mount. If not, misting is another option, but you’ll have to do it quite frequently (maybe every two or three days). If it’s bark or cork, soaking the mount should not be a problem.

  11. Nancy says:

    I have one that was glued in a round glass globe. So I canโ€™t take it out to soak it. Would you suggest spraying it every day with a squirt bottle? Iโ€™m starting to see dead leaves is this normal?

    • Unfortunately, gluing air plants to a display often leads to the death of the plant. If you can, gently try to remove it from the globe and soak it in a bowl of water. Then, just place it back in the globe. That way you can water it properly.

  12. Yulia Dashevsky says:

    Thank you for this fabulous article. My question is: how do I attach the plants onto the wood or other non-porous surface? Thank you!

  13. Dash Anthony Flagg says:

    One of the most important things you forgot to mention is that it is essential to keep your air plants away from anything copper. Don’t use decoritive containers or holders that are made of even a small amount of copper or use wire with copper in it to attach them to a mount. I’ve seen so many stores selling air plants in something containing copper. The presence of any copper will quickly kill any air plant. Not positive of exactly why. But I’ve seen the result.

  14. Melissa SKIDELL says:

    My air plant has grown some twig like branches off to the side, at first I was thinking pups , they are about three inches long, are these just roots? Can I cut them ? This plant is about 4 yrs old

  15. kim dohner says:

    should i use fertilerd water everytime i spray the air plants???

  16. Tisa Mass says:

    I’m new to this and would like input add to best vessel for my plants. I was going to use cleared out decorative light bulbs but im worried about such small openings. Please advise as to best vessel. Thank you your article is very informative!

  17. Linda Hall says:

    I have a type of Air plant that just finished blooming pink. I have several
    plants I plan to plant outside. I collected them from Garden Club.
    My friend says that she grows them
    outside in her garden and they multiply
    over the summer. She brings them in for winter here in zone 7A.
    Can I safely plant in the ground?
    Thank you

    • Typically air plants are epiphytic, which means their roots attach to tree branches, rather than growing in the soil. If what you have is a bromilead, rather than a tillandsia/air plant, they can be planted in the soil. Do a little research on bromileads to see if that’s what your friend gave you. Sometimes people call bromileads air plants.

  18. Angela Sword says:

    I also enjoy using a piece of driftwood or dried dessert limb to push the new/small air plant into a notch. As long as the roots haven’t grown and attached, I can remove for soaking. When they do attach, I just soak the wood also. So far, the wood has not rotted. Also, I have drilled a hole in a an old fence plank and used it for the setting of the air plant. I live in a very humid area so some of my air plants are attached to wood a piece of wood and then pushed in the dirt or the piece propped on the ground. They grow so quickly outside here and reward me with a bloom in the fall. Of course, before the cold weather, I just bring them inside.

  19. Dorothy Anne Stewart says:

    I have one that is now 7 years old, but it doesn’t seem to be multiplying. It is getting longer with no pups on it. Any hints? thanks.

    • I suggest fertilizing a bit more frequently. But really, don’t be upset if you don’t get flowers or offsets. Some species require a good bit of maturity before they form either one of them. It just may need more time.

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