Ahhh, air plants! These funky little guys, also known as Tillandsia, absorb water and nutrients from tiny crystalline trichomes on their leaves, never requiring the fuss of pots or soil! Although they have gained a reputation for being an “easy” beginner plant, after careful research I learned they do require a bit of specialized care. Different air plants have different personalities and preferences! Determined to be the best plant parent I can be, I have searched the Internet far and wide for information on how to care for all the different varieties of air plants. Now that I have been successfully caring for (and steadily growing my collection) of air plants for over a year, I feel confident that the knowledge I have acquired is worth sharing. Now you too can crack the code of these magical and mysterious life forms!
First, some general key points:
-Watering about once a week has worked for me. (Watering Wednesday!) Air plants are pretty drought tolerant, but you’ll find they respond most enthusiastically when regularly hydrated. Friends of mine report success with watering every 10 days to two weeks, so I would say every week or every other week is ideal.
-Always water in the morning or early afternoon; that way your plants will be sure to absorb all their water most efficiently.
-Air plants will tell you when they are thirsty! An air plant that needs water will turn more silver / grey and curl up more tightly. A hydrated air plant is plump, expressive with its tendrils, and more green.
-In general, air plants that are more green need more water and less light; air plants that are more silvery prefer a drier climate and can tolerate higher light levels.
-They thrive in light! Some can handle lower light, and some varieties such as Xerographica can tolerate a significant amount of direct light as well. Indoors, they can in general handle plenty of direct and indirect light; outdoors they might prefer more shade. The awesome thing about air plants is they will tell you if they like where you put them! If your plant is getting too much sun, its tips will start to look a little crispy. In too low light, it will look droopy and sad. Since they are easy to move around, play around with where you put them to see what they like.
-Air plants are sensitive to the chemicals found in our tap water. I have read that to allow some of the chemicals to evaporate, you can let tap water sit for at least 24 hours before using it on your plants. This is what I have been doing, but please note that this is not a guarantee and depending on where you live the water from your tap may or may not be suitable. Spring water works. Do not use distilled water. The best water of all is rainwater as it is packed with nutrients! If you can collect a little rainwater and just use that or mix it in with the rest of their water, your plants will thank you! Please make sure this water is room temperature – you don’t want to shock these sensitive beings with too much heat or cold!
-They need air flow! While terrariums are super cute, they are happiest when not enclosed. My most enthusiastic plants are right by my window. A humid climate with moisture in the air will make them very pleased, but they do just fine in dry air as long as they are watered regularly.
-Fertilization is not required. I have never fertilized mine, but air plant fertilizers do exist! Fertilizing will encourage flowers and “pups,” little baby offshoots that will grow into a new version of your plant!
-Air plants flower once during their life cycle. After flowering, the air plant slowly dies, but don’t be sad! Pups will appear on your air plant and you will have a “mini me” version in no time!
-They enjoy listening to smooth jazz. Just trust me on this one.
For most varieties of air plants, you’ll want to give them a soak for about 10-15 minutes in a bowl of water. Remember, they absorb the water from their little tendrils and not from their roots, so while it is okay to get the roots wet, it is not the goal. I like to plunk them tendrils down, booties up and let them float around to the silky sounds of some smooth jazz. (They seem to vibe with it.) When time is up and they look green and plump and full, give them a thorough shake when you take them out (like a dog after a bath). You want to be sure to shake out any excess water. Allow them to dry tendrils down, booties up in a well ventilated location away from direct sunlight, as too much sun on a wet plant can cause a burn. (I like to put them on plates by my open window with the ceiling fan on up above for extra air circulation.)
In the wild, most air plants grow on trees! They grow separately from the tree, not taking any nutrients, just chillin’ there like a close friend on a lifelong piggyback ride. (The technical name for this is an epiphyte.) They get plenty of natural airflow and light, though they are somewhat shaded by the tree’s branches. Moisture in the air and rainfall provide them with ample water, but the wind and the movement of branches ensures that excess water is shaken and run off, never collecting. Understanding how these plants grow naturally can help us mimic their way of life at home.
Always let your air plants dry upside down (ass up, tentacles down) for at least four hours! (Preferably all day.) The reason for this is that you want to avoid water collecting in the base of the plant, which can cause root rot. Root rot is the main enemy of these absorbent creatures, and once it takes hold, unfortunately there is nothing you can do. Watch out for the base of the plant turning brown or mushy; if the leaves all start falling out, you are unfortunately fucked. Try not to be too hard on yourself; this is a common issue and can progress very slowly over time, meaning it may have had this problem since before you bought it. (That’s what I tell myself, anyway.)
For Tillandsia varieties such as Xerographica and Streptophylla (the linguine plant!), you’ll want to water using a spray bottle. These varieties come from drier climates and have especially bulbous bases that can collect a lot of water, so hold them upside down while thoroughly spraying their leaves with water. Once fully saturated, your plant would love a very good shake-off and an upside-down drying session just like the others!
If any of your plants are flowering, I recommend using the spray method. If you avoid getting the flower wet, it will last for the longest amount of time possible! Soaking the flower can cause it to wilt prematurely.
For extra “fluffy” or trichome-y varieties like the Tectorum, you barely need to do anything at all! These plants grow in very dry climates naturally, and that heavy coat of trichomes ensures that each drop of water is carefully conserved. I water this one every other week, and all I do is quickly dunk it in water for a few seconds and pull it right out. You’ll notice it will instantly turn green and hydrate before your eyes! Give it the same shake and dry-off as its friends, and remember that these varieties love soaking up some extra sun.
The air plant variety I hear people struggle with most is the bulb / Medusae kind. These plants have a very bulbous base and snake-like tentacles. In their natural habitat, these varieties tend to grow out of rock walls or the sides of cliffs. This means that water is never standing or collecting near them, just running through. To make them happy, you can mimic this easily! Simply hold them, bulb up, tentacles down, and quickly pour water on them just for a couple seconds until saturated. You can get the bulb damp but I would recommend trying to avoid it as it is mostly hollow and excess moisture can easily accumulate. Give them a good shake and let them dry just like the others, and you will be set!
Although you can spritz your air plants gently in between waterings, I prefer not to. I live right by the ocean so there is plenty of moisture in the air. I still hesitate to recommend in-between spritzing just because of the risk of excess moisture collecting and leading to rot, but you can carefully navigate this at your own discretion.
One really cool thing about air plants is that they display a ton of personality! They will respond with enthusiasm with each watering, making them a great way to get in tune with the subtleties of nature. Seriously, every time I water them they expand and unfurl a little bit more, making them wonderfully responsive and rewarding additions to your plant family.
So there you have it, the results of all my Googling and experimenting, all in one place! May this information give you the confidence to become your very own air plant expert! I believe in you!
Oh, and if you are wondering where to get your hands on these bad boys, check out Air Plant Hub! Happy plant parenting!