Air Plant Care: A Guide to Tending, Watering, and Fertilizing Tillandsia

Air plants have become popular in the world of houseplants due to their effortless care and unique display options. When you visit your local nursery, you’ll find various creative setups featuring air plants in sea shells, glass globes, and wooden frames. While these plants don’t need soil to thrive, they do have specific care requirements that are surprisingly easy to meet.

Understanding Air Plants

Before delving into air plant care, it’s essential to understand what air plants truly are. Air plants, scientifically known as Tillandsia, belong to the bromeliad family. They are a diverse group of plants comprising hundreds of species. Unlike traditional plants, air plants are epiphytes, which means they attach themselves to the branches of trees and shrubs instead of growing in the ground. They utilize their host plant merely as a support system and source of shelter.

Air plants absorb moisture and nutrients through their leaves instead of their roots. While some varieties have broad, strap-like leaves, others have delicate thread-like foliage. Native to the southern U.S., Central and South America, and Mexico, air plants can adapt to various climates. However, they cannot survive winters where temperatures fall below 40 degrees F. These plants thrive in warm, humid conditions, making them a bit challenging to care for in most homes, particularly during winter months.

Air plant varieties for gardeners
Image: There are many different varieties of air plants available to indoor gardeners.

Watering Air Plants

To ensure proper air plant care, it’s crucial to provide them with adequate moisture. Contrary to popular belief, air plants cannot survive on air alone. While they don’t require soil, they depend on moisture and nutrients from their surroundings.

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Since indoor environments lack the humidity of a forest, there are two primary methods for watering air plants:

  • Misting: Use a spray bottle or plant mister to mist the leaves of your air plants with water every day or two. After misting, allow the plants to dry on a towel for a few hours before returning them to their display.

Watering tips for air plants
Image: A daily misting is a great way to water air plants.

  • Soaking: Fill a bowl or sink with water and immerse your air plants in it for 20 minutes to an hour each week. Afterward, remove the plants from the water, allow excess moisture to drain off, and place them on a towel to dry before putting them back on display.

Tips for watering and caring for air plants
Image: Water air plants weekly by soaking them in the sink.

Choosing the Right Water

The water you use to water air plants is essential for their overall health. Consider the following tips when selecting the type of water:

  1. Avoid using softened water as it contains salt that can accumulate in the leaves.
  2. Do not use distilled water.
  3. If using tap water, let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours to allow chlorine to dissipate.
  4. Spring water or rainwater is the best choice.
  5. Alternatively, you can use aquarium or pond water, but avoid adding any fertilizers in this case.

Caring for air plants in the home
Image: Use chlorine-free water to irrigate air plants.

The frequency of watering air plants depends on the humidity levels in your home and the specific conditions of the room they are kept in. Bathrooms and kitchens, with their increased moisture levels, make ideal environments for air plants. However, rooms with constant airflow, such as those with running fans, may cause air plants to dry out more quickly.

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Signs that indicate the need for more frequent watering include curling or rolling leaves, leaves that fold together, or browning of outer leaves. Green-leaved air plant varieties typically require more frequent watering than gray-leaved ones. If you keep your air plants in a vessel like a terrarium or glass globe, remember to remove them before watering and allow them to fully dry before returning them to their display.

Caring for air plants through the seasons
Image: Use your creativity and display air plants in many fun ways.

Providing Adequate Light

Proper lighting is crucial for air plant care. Air plants thrive in bright, filtered light. Ideally, place them near a west, east, or south-facing window. If you feel that your air plant isn’t receiving enough light, consider supplementing with a fluorescent light or a table-top grow light.

During the summer, you can move your air plants outdoors, but ensure they are in a location with filtered sunlight. Direct sun exposure during hot summer months can harm them. Remember to bring them back indoors before the first frost of fall.

Fertilizing Air Plants

Fertilizing air plants is not necessary but can help them thrive. Monthly or quarterly applications of fertilizer are beneficial, especially if you water your air plants with rainwater or water from an aquarium or pond.

Use an air plant-specific fertilizer or a bromeliad fertilizer several times a year. Alternatively, you can dilute a regular water-soluble houseplant fertilizer to 1/4 of the recommended strength. Add the diluted fertilizer to your irrigation water, ensuring the plants receive both nourishment and hydration.

Fertilizing and watering Tillandsia air plants
Image: Fertilizing Tillandsia isn’t difficult, but you must use the right type of fertilizer.

Additional Air Plant Care Tips

In addition to the primary care requirements mentioned above, here are a few more tips for ensuring the well-being of your air plants:

  • Remove any dead leaves at the base of the plant by gently pulling or trimming them with plant grooming shears.
  • If any leaves develop brown tips, carefully trim the dead growth at an angle, allowing the trimmed leaf to blend in with the healthy ones.
  • Keep air plants away from cold and hot drafts, as they can cause drying.
  • The optimal temperature range for air plants is between 50 and 90 degrees F.
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How to care for air plants
Image: Remove dead or dying leaves from air plants by twisting them off or using a pair of plant shears.

Blooming and Propagation

When cared for correctly, air plants may reward you with blooms. Most species of Tillandsia bloom only once in their lifetime, producing beautiful spikes of pink, purple, white, orange, red, or yellow flowers. Blooms typically appear in late winter or spring. During this time, the plants also produce offsets or “pups,” which are young daughter plants. You can separate these offsets from the mother plant by gently twisting or cutting them off. When the young offsets are about half the size of the mother plant, relocate them to a new location.

Proper air plant care is essential to enjoy these unique plants for many years to come.

This article was contributed by Ames Farm Center. Click here to learn more about air plant care and explore their wide range of gardening products.

Air Plant Care: Tending, Watering, and Fertilizing Tillandsia