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This post comes courtesy of Mari from Houseplant Central, who was kind enough to share her air plant expertise with us. Be sure to stop by her website to say hello and check out all of her indoor planting tips and guides.
Air plants from the genus Tillandsia are immensely popular and it’s easy to see why. They make the perfect novelty plant with their strange growth habits and unusual shapes.
Unfortunately, what makes air plants so interesting is what makes them challenging too. It’s a big switch for plant parents to suddenly have to figure out care for something with no soil! Mistakes are easily made, especially if you’re still learning, and unfortunately these plants are not very forgiving when it comes to their watering needs.
If your air plant is not looking so hot right now, don’t panic. Let’s go over the most common reasons for dying air plants and how to fix them. Many can still be saved and even if yours can’t, at least you’ll have learned something for next time.
Air plants’ natural life cycle
The first thing to consider if you’re worried about your air plant is their life cycle. Like other Bromeliads, plants in the genus Tillandsia tend to die off at some point after flowering. It can be quick, it can be slow, but once you’ve enjoyed that flower spike you need to keep in mind that the mother plant will fade away.
Is it better to just avoid air plants entirely if we don’t want this heartache? No, there’s hope!
After flowering, the air plant mother goes into baby producing mode. You’ll almost always start finding one or multiple pups at her base, which slowly grow alongside her until she eventually gives up the ghost.
In the end, you will likely actually end up with more air plants than you had before, so there is no reason to dread their lovely flowers.
Overwatered air plant
The most common “unnatural” cause of air plant death is probably overwatering. It can be challenging for us houseplant lovers to adjust to keeping a plant alive without soil. Air plants’ intolerance to standing water can take you by surprise, they really are highly sensitive to rot.
An air plant suffering from rot due to overwatering might:
- Feel soft and mushy at the base
- Lose leaves and/or fall apart
- Show black spots on the leaves
- Suffer from blackening or shriveling of the leaves.
Keep in mind that if rot is located in the inside of your air plant, you unfortunately often won’t even notice until one day it just disintegrates. Ugh! Even if you do catch it, rot is very persistent and there is precious little you can do in many cases.
If the rotting is isolated to the outer leaves you might be in luck. Remove all afflicted foliage. Also consider using a fungicide suitable for Bromeliads (or cinnamon for a natural option) for good measure.
Of course, your absolute best bet is to make sure you avoid rotting issues on your air plants entirely. In most cases it’s easy to prevent this condition by making sure you do the following:
- Don’t rely on a set watering schedule (ie. “I water every Tuesday”). Instead, learn to recognize what your air plants look like when they’re satisfied and how their leaves slowly curl up when they start to show signs of thirst.
- Consider the difference between xeric (from an arid habitat) and mesic (from a humid habitat) air plants. The xerics are the ones that show that typical silver layer of fine hairs on their leaves: trichomes. They might need less water than mesics, which have less trichomes and therefore less of an ability to catch water.
- Air plants can be left submerged in water to soak for quite some time but should always be properly dried. I like placing mine upside down on a towel and setting them outside in a shaded, windy spot or running a fan over them. Don’t water your air plants inside a terrarium with limited air circulation. Instead, place them back once they’re dry.
- Provide a location that gets bright indirect light. Even some full sun is okay, especially for xeric air plants. Without adequate light, plants can’t deal with the water you give them.
Underwatered air plant
Air plants perishing from underwatering is not as common as overwatering but it does happen. We all forget a plant sometimes, or don’t remember to adjust our watering habits to the summer growing season.
Watering air plants is something that should usually be done around once every 8-10 days by means of soaking. In between that you can also spray the plants to provide some additional moisture. Sticking to only giving a spray once in a while is a common cause of air plant underwatering, unless you really leave them soaking wet when you do so. They need deeper waterings than just an occasional misting.
If you accidentally underwatered your air plant but it doesn’t seem to have bit the dust just yet, you might be able to revive it. Remove leaves that are obviously dead and then give the plant in question a long, long soak. Maybe even overnight! Dry thoroughly and then make sure you don’t forget the victim again in the future.
Air plant sunburn
Although air plants can take some direct sunlight, they need to be able to acclimate to higher light conditions. If they’re used to indirect light and suddenly end up baking in the sun for hours on end, they’ll likely end up with sunburn.
- A sunburnt air plant will show a bleached, light tan coloration on its leaves.
- The leaf tips might dry out and crisp up.
- Blotchy yellow spots can appear on the leaves; this is especially visible when the plant is wet.
There isn’t much you can do for a sunburnt air plant. Luckily they’ll usually survive, though they can lose quite a bit of foliage and might look pretty ugly for a good while. Give it plenty of TLC in the form of good soaks, proper drying and lots of indirect light; if you see new growth appearing, you should be in the clear.
Tip: Never place an air plant in the sun to help dry it. Its trichomes, which normally reflect light, won’t be able to do their job as well when wet. Burning can happen very quickly in this situation.
Too little light for air plant
All plants need light to thrive, often more than we think. Air plants are no different and although it can be tempting to just see them as décor pieces that we can place anywhere, they will slowly wither away if they don’t get enough light.
So how do you know whether you’re giving your air plant enough light? A good rule of thumb is to place it in a location where it can “see the sky”, like a windowsill or under a skylight. A bit further away from the window is also possible if a lot of light comes in, otherwise you’ll have to think about some artificial lighting.
An air plant that’s not getting enough light might show the following symptoms:
- The leaves might start losing their color
- The leaves might start cupping inward
- New growth doesn’t appear even during the summer months
- Leaf loss
- Low light + overwatering can lead to rot
Tip: Don’t just move your air plant to a glaringly bright spot if you realize you hadn’t been giving it enough light before. Slowly increase the lighting to prevent shocking the plant.
Air plant problems due to salts, minerals & overfertilizing
Tillandsias are sensitive to the minerals in tap water and fertilizer, as these can choke the trichomes out and make them unable to do their job of absorbing water. This usually shows over time, starting with brown leaf tips.
Luckily it’s not too difficult to avoid this issue. If you know your local tap water hardness is high and/or chlorine or chloramine is used, you might consider a different water source. Leaving water out overnight at least allows chlorine/chloramine to evaporate, so that’s a start.
Rain water is perfect, especially if you’re outside the city where it might be polluted. Got an aquarium or fish pond? That’s great, the fish poop in the water means you probably never have to fertilize your air plants again. Mineral water is also fine, but avoid distilled because it doesn’t contain any nutrients.
As for overfertilizing, you can prevent this by only feeding your air plants during the active growing months in spring and summer. Use a special Bromeliad fertilizer or even one specifically for air plants and make sure you follow the guidelines on the bottle. If you think you might have overdone it, a soak in distilled water can help rid the plant of excess nutrients.
Too little air circulation for air plant
We’ve already discussed that air circulation is important for air plants, especially after a watering. This can become an issue if you want to grow yours in a terrarium, which is exactly where many of us like to display our air plants.
An air plant terrarium can never be entirely closed off. It should always have an opening; preferably even two so the air can circulate easily. In closed environments the chances of your air plant eventually succumbing to rot are pretty significant, so keep that air flowing!
Tip: Tillandsia usneoides, also known as Spanish moss, is a common victim or circulation issues. This species grows so densely that it might choke out its own inner growth, so this is definitely one to place in a very well-circulated spot or spread out a bit more.
Too hot or too cold for air plant
Although air plants have evolved to withstand quite a bit of hardship, there are limits to what they can handle in terms of temperature.
A well-acclimated air plant can handle pretty high temperatures. In general, though, it’s a good idea to keep things under 90 °F/32 °C to avoid leaf crisping and the issues discussed in the paragraph about sunburn.
As a rule of thumb, try not to leave your air plant in a spot where temperatures can drop below 50 °F/10 °C. Additionally, never suddenly move it to a spot that’s significantly colder than where it was before. Remember that all plants need less water when it’s cold, as they won’t be actively growing, and getting too wet might cause them to rot. Frost is always a no for these guys!
Pests on air plants
I haven’t personally ever had the misfortune of discovering pests on my air plants but I know it does happen. Fuzzy mealybugs and scab-like scale are two common culprits.
The easiest way to prevent an infestation is to check all air plants thoroughly before buying them: really peek into all of those leaf nooks. Additionally, just keep your air plants healthy. Pests are much less likely to be able to take hold on a plant that’s happy and thriving.
If you’ve discovered bugs on your air plants, separate them from the rest (and keep a close eye on your whole collection for a while). Treat by spraying weekly with water mixed with a few drops of neem oil or dish soap; if that doesn’t seem to do the trick then you might need to consider a horticultural insecticide.
This list of common air plant problems may seem daunting, especially the fact that it’s so easy to overwater them. Don’t let it make you too nervous: you just have to get used to these funky epiphytes!
It’s normal to use a plant or two along the way, whether you’re dealing with Tillandsias or other houseplants. Just start your Tillandsia collection out with some cheaper varieties and then branch out to the coveted rare or large ones once you feel you’ve got things under control.
About the author
Mari is the author behind Houseplant Central, an informative website dedicated to helping houseplant enthusiasts keep their greenery happy and healthy.
Originally from The Netherlands but living in Spain, she spends her days writing about indoor gardening in the company of two mischievous parakeets and extensive houseplant collection (including five air plant species).