Air Plants

How to Care for an Air Plant (And its Flowers and Pups)

It’s super easy to learn how to care for an air plant. In fact, the number of things you ‘need’ to remember can be counted on one hand.

  • Lighting
  • Water
  • Temperature
  • Air Circulation
  • Fertilization

That’s for regular weekly/monthly care for tillandsias, which is the botanical name for air plants, but who uses them? Didn’t think so. It’s like everything else though, it’s only easy when you know how.

Consider the following your cheat-sheet to keep your air plant healthy. Follow this and you’ll see yours in full bloom (only once) and then it’ll be producing offspring (pups) for years to come.

Do you know what you’re taking on with an air plant?

With each pup comes a new lease of life because that’ll bloom too and it’ll eventually create offspring as well. Or they should anyway.

Know this though… Just because they’re called air plants, doesn’t mean they’ll live off the moisture in the air. They still need water and a little TLC now and then for them to bloom and pup.

With that, let’s start learning…

How to Care for an Air Plant (And its Flowers and Pups)

Air Plant Care Essentials – Your 5-Point Checklist

1 – Lighting exposure – How much is too much?

Over 12-hours of any type of light is too much. All varieties of air plants do best with bright indirect light. They love bright light, but not direct sunlight.

If you do need to keep air plants in direct sunlight

Water them more frequently.

Because… The more direct light an air plant gets, the more depleted its moisture content will be. The moisture content of the plant is what attracts the air to it.

And what’s in air? 

Humidity, which for air plants means hydration or in the case of too much light using up the moisture, dehydration.

Now, if your home or office doesn’t have enough light… Full spectrum fluorescent lighting can be used. Just don’t leave it on constantly and certainly not for more than 12-hours a day. Try to mimic daylight hours. 12-hours maximum daily.

If you remember one thing from all of this, let it be these…

2 – Watering Guidelines for Air Plants

Air plants can be soaked (better) or misted (as needed) using a spray bottle, regardless the size of the plant. If yours is too big to fit in the sink, pale, or basin, soak it in the bathtub. Always soak upside down though.

The leaves of an air plant are what needs the most water. Not the crown (bottom) of the plant.

About that… Too much standing water, such as what would happen if you potted an air plant without drainage in the pot, would cause the crown to rot. For that reason, they should be air dried upside down before putting them back on display.

At least once a week, put your air plant upside down in a basin of water. Then air dry it upside down too so that the water runs onto a towel and not to the base of the plant.

The only time you don’t do this is when it’s in bloom. You’ll kill the flowers and kick yourself for wasting it (more on caring for air plants in bloom later).

At this stage, you’re likely wondering… How long do I soak my air plant for?

If you’re only soaking the plant once a week, soak it for up to half an hour, but no less than 20-minutes.

In the summer months when the temperatures are higher, soaking should be increased to twice weekly. If you’re doing that, cut the time back to 20-minutes, unless you see some dehydration warning signs (covered below).

Let’s not forget the house sitter… 

When you’re heading away on a vacation and need to leave instructions for someone else to follow, just tell them to mist the plant daily by spraying the water over the leaves until they brighten up, because a weird thing happens when air plants are thirsty…

They turn a gray-silverish color. Then, the instant the water is sprayed on, it changes back to green (check out the video below, around the four minute mark).

This should go without saying… Don’t dehydrate your plant just to be entertained by the changing colors. Keep it healthy by watering it plenty.

The texture changes too… The texture of the leaves on a well hydrated air plant is stiff. When they need watering, as well as turning pale, the leaves turn soft. So, if you’re not one for noticing color changes, just touch the leaves to feel the texture.

Think of these as air plant sign-language.

  • If the leaves are stiff, it’s healthy. If it’s soft, it needs a drink.
  • If it’s bright, it’s healthy, if it’s paler than usual, it needs a drink. The paler the shade, the thirstier the plant.

When things are getting bad…

On a really dehydrated air plant, green turns to brown. That’s never good with any plant. What will happen is some of the tips on the leaves will brown. That shouldn’t run right along the edges of the leaves though. If that is happening, water it more often.

Don’t worry for nothing though… It is normal for the tips to brown on air plants, but only occasionally. If it’s happening constantly, as in, every week when you go to soak the plant you find yourself reaching for the scissors to snip away tips that have turned brown, it’s not being watered enough.

Be warier of that in the summer months because that will let you know it’s time to increase from a weekly soak to twice weekly. If you’re strapped for time and can’t soak them twice weekly, thoroughly mist the air plant daily to prevent any problems.

This is really helpful to know…

You cannot over water an air plant. They only absorb as much water as they need, so they can be left submerged upside down in water overnight.

The type of water you use matters too… Unchlorinated water / purified water is best.

If you’re using tap water, a safe precaution is to fill a basin or whatever you’re using to soak your air plant in and leave it out for 24 hours. That’ll let the chlorine evaporate from the tap water.

If you’re using rainwater for house plants, such as if you have something to collect rainwater or a garden pond, don’t use fertilizer with it because there’s already nutrients in rainwater.

If you think something’s already gone wrong with your air plant, scroll down this page to the section that covers how to revive an air plant before you give up hope.

This next one, you’d need to be trying to mess up…

3 – Temperatures that Air Plants Adore

As air plants can be indoor or outdoor plants, they can be subjected to temperature variations. That’s why they’re handy as a houseplant, because you don’t need a green house to have a gorgeous tropical plant around.

Any temperature between 50oF and 90oF is sufficient for an air plant. Preferable temperatures are 80oF to 90oF during the day, dropping to 50oF to 60oF at night.

The higher, the better, but never freezing since they are tropical plants after all. If you’re feeling the chill, so is your plant.

Remember though, the warmer the temperature, the more water an air plant needs.

Now, don’t overlook the obvious…

4 – Air Circulation is Essential for Moisture

No joke…

The clue’s in the name here – air plant. Still needs saying though because terrariums, as attractive as they are, don’t circulate enough air for an air plant.

If you really want to use a glass display, use one with the biggest opening you can find. Like a small air plant in a fish bowl with no lid. Air plants thrive best in the open so that plenty of air can surround them.

On the topic of enclosures, never put an air plant back into an enclosure while it’s wet. Dry it fully. Like shake the water off the leaves, sit it upside down on a towel at the window for the sunlight to help dry it.

Direct sunlight is okay in short bursts. Up to four hours of direct sunlight won’t do any harm to your plant.

  • Air plants should get wet.
  • They should not be damp.

They will absorb moisture during the day from the air. But, that doesn’t mean they can survive without watering.

In the tropics, yeah. Not your home (unless you live in the tropics), because it’s not going to come close to the humid environments of a tropical rain forest. In that environment, they’d get water all day.

In most homes elsewhere, the humidity won’t be nearly as high, so there’s less water around for the plant to absorb. When they aren’t being soaked or misted, it’s the air that plants absorb moisture from. That’s why they should be out in open air. In an enclosure, they’ll struggle.

To prevent an air plant from ever struggling, follow these…

5 – Fertilizing Air Plant Guidelines: Because Anything Living Does Better with Good Nutrition

Don’t ignore this part thinking you don’t need it. You do. Well, your plant does.

Here’s why: Tap water and any type of purified water, doesn’t have the nutrients that rainwater has. Taking good care of indoor air plants is best done with fertilizer.

Not every time you soak or mist them. Just once a month is enough to keep them in tip-top condition.

When you do that, they’ll bloom best. And it’ll help them pup too. Who doesn’t want to see that?

Most plant fertilizers are suitable for air plants. The only ones that aren’t are those that contain copper and zinc as those are toxic to air plants. It’ll kill them. No second chances with those in your fertilizer!

The safest type to use are specific to air plants. Since tillandsias are part of the bromeliad family, any bromeliad fertilizer will do. The main concern with fertilizers is the salinity of the water when you’re either soaking them or misting them.

For that reason, when you have your water ready with the dissolved plant fertilizer in it, use it within 24-hours. If you have more than one air plant, it’ll be easier to do them all on the same day with the same water solution.

If you decide to use a fertilizer that’s not specific to bromeliads, but more of an all-purpose water soluble solution (without zinc or copper – check what’s in it), it’ll need diluted to a quarter strength. Otherwise, it could be too rich and wind up burning your air plant. Bad times!

Most advice about air plant care centers around fertilizing air plants as being optional. Considering these plants live best in humid conditions with moisture from rainwater, it stands to reason that an air plant fertilizer will help them.

It certainly won’t harm them being fed once a month, provided it’s the right type of fertilizer without any copper or zinc traces and diluted to the right strengths – as directed on the label or the instructions that come with it.

If you’re really nervous about using fertilizer, you don’t need to. Just know that they will do better being fed once a month. Besides, you’ll want it to bloom and fertilizing helps that happen.

When it does start flowering, you’ll then need to know…

How to Care for a Blooming Air Plant

Air plants bloom only once. When they do, it’s pretty magical.

When your air plant starts flowering, stop soaking it and mist it with a spray bottle instead. Let the plant care for the flowers. They’re quite clever in knowing where nutrients are needed.

They will need misting more frequently because the weekly soaking isn’t happening. Expect to be misting daily, sometimes more than once depending on the humidity.

What to Do When Your Air Plant Pups

Each year, provided you’re taking the right care with your air plant, it’ll produce offspring – pups. The number of pups an air plant produces varies by the type of plant. Some can produce one to three, others up to a dozen.

It’s a wait and see game. You might get lucky to get a bloom in the first year, with a single pup the following year, or you could get triplets or a litter of pups.

When that happens, they can be left attached to the mother plant, or you can remove them when they are a third of the size of the mother plant.

You can then start again caring for your new air plant or give them away to someone who’d appreciate and care for it. And wants to see it flower.

(If you’re giving away your tillandsia pups, there’s bite-sized air plant care tips included in the summary section later that’ll come in handy)

If you feel something’s not quite right… Don’t assume you’ve done something that’s killed or is killing your air plant. You might be able to revive it…

How to Revive an Air Plant

If you’re ordering plants online, this is really handy to know because your plant could turn up looking neglected and needing more TLC in its first days with you.

You’ll know if an air plant needs extra care if it’s looking more brown than green, and/or the leaves feel soft to touch instead of stiff.

Do this before giving up…

Bathe it overnight (upside down)

Remember, air plants only absorb as much water as they need. They won’t drown.

In the morning, take it out of the water and place it upside down on top of a towel to let it dry for around four hours. To ensure it is dry, check between the leaves to make sure there isn’t any water collected, especially near the crown.

Leaves should be either wet or dry. Not damp. Wet when misted and misted when they begin to lose some color. If the leaves are a lot paler than normal, it’s an overnight bath it needs.

If you’re using an open enclosure, it’s super important to make sure the air plant is completely dry before putting it back into an enclosure. Otherwise it’ll create a damp environment, rather than humid. That’ll just make things worse.

Another thing to try is changing the type of water used…

If you’ve been watering with tap water, leave it out for 24-hours to get rid of any pollutants such as chlorine, or use filtered water. If you can, rainwater is best.

Word of caution though – never add fertilizer to rainwater, water from a garden pond or any outdoor water as those are nutrient rich already. Especially garden ponds.

Ditch the already dead leaves

This is the part when you’ll know if your plant is going to live or if it’s had its day.

Once the plant is dry, the leaves should be thick. Dead ones won’t be and they’ll be brown. The softness of them will mean they’ll fall away easily. No snipping required.

Any brown leaves, pluck them because if you leave dead leaves on it, those can cause the rest of the plant to rot. If the whole plant crumbles then shed a tear or two because sadly, it’s gone.

Hopefully, you’ll still have some green leaves feeling stiff because that means the hydration has worked.

Brown tips are an easy fix

If it’s only the tips of the leaves turning brown, there is an easy fix. Use rainwater or leave your water out for 24-hours before soaking the plant in it as you would do weekly. Chances are, it’s chlorine or other pollutants in the water causing the damage. Or the plant’s not being watered enough, in which case, water it more.

To Summarize:

Air plants need:

  • Bright indirect light for no more than 12-hours a day
  • Water it by bathing it weekly for either a half hour or up to 12-hours overnight (unless you’re adding fertilizer, in which case, 30-minutes is long enough of a soak). If you’re misting the plant with a spray bottle, do this frequently. Daily would be better.
  • Room temperature can be anywhere between 50oF and 90oF so if it’s too cold for you, it’s too cold for the plant. The hotter the room, the more water an air plant needs.
  • Air is imperative so never keep an air plant in an enclosed area like a terrarium with the lid shut.
  • Use a bromeliad fertilizer once per month as a supplemental care step ensuring your air plant blooms and pups as it should.
  • When your air plant blooms – don’t submerge it in water. Increase misting instead of soaking as the flowers will fall away from the plant.
  • When your air plant produces pups, leave them attached until they’re at least a third of the size of the mother plant. Or, if you don’t mind the bigger size of the plant, leave them attached.

That’s really all there is to care for an air plant.

As easy as air plants are to care for, the main things to remember is to give them light, water, warmth, air and a monthly feed with a bromeliad fertilizer.

Final tip: If you’re going to give away your air plants pups to a friend, give them the 7-points in the summary as a quick reference list to tell them how to care for air plants. They’ll thank you even more.

How to Care for an Air Plant (And its Flowers and Pups) was last modified: February 13th, 2019 by The Practical Planter

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