How to care for air plants

Air plants are generally very low maintenance. They do not require any soil, nor a lot of space, but that does not mean that they are completely care-free. In this guide we will give you all the basic instructions for keeping your air plants in perfect condition.

Tillandsia

Taxonomically, air plants belong to the genus Tillandsia, a very diverse group of plants that thrive in a wide variety of habitats. Most Tillandsias are epiphytic and grow like orchids on trees and other plants in Central America. 

Trichomes

Because of their unique lifestyle, air plants do not require any roots for taking up nutrients from the soil. Instead, they have developed a dense layer of elaborate hairs on their leaves, called trichomes. These trichomes have taken over most of the functions that roots normally perform, which is why they are able to take up water through their leaves.

In most species trichomes are very hard to see with the naked eye, but in some air plants like the Tillandsia tectorum (see here) they are so large that they give the entire plant a fluffy appearance!

Tillandsia tectorum

The trichomes on Tillandsia tectorum give this species a fluffy appearance.

Placement

Air plants are true cosmopolitans. They will rapidly adapt to the ambient conditions of your home. Yet there are some things you can watch for when choosing the right spot for your plants. For instance, air plants need good air circulation. Therefore, always make sure that there is plenty of room around your plant. 

Enclosed spaces, like glass terraria, are not optimal. Try instead to position your plants a little off the ground on a hanger, wall mount or holder that is designed to maximize air flow.

Light

Light requirements vary per species (see here). Air plants have adapted to live on branches below the canopy. For this reason, they prefer bright, filtered light. Although some species, like the melanocrater, tectorum and capitata can tolerate full sun, most air plants will develop brown leaf tips when placed in direct sunlight.

Water

Watering frequency and duration is perhaps most important of all. A lot depends on the temperature and humidity in your home. During winter when light levels are low, soaking your plants in a bowl of water once a week for about 15 minutes should suffice. In spring you can increase the watering frequency to about two to three times a week, while during summer as often as five times might be required.

After watering it is absolutely essential that your plants dry quickly, because moisture trapped in between leaves may cause leaf rot. One effective method for speeding up the drying process is to shake off excess water from your plants and hanging them upside down for a few hours. 

Once you get to know your air plants, it’s not very hard to spot when they need watering. Watch the curvature of the leaves. Tillandsias start to curl inwards when drying out to preserve moisture. 

Fertilizer

Since air plants are epiphytes, they have developed a very efficient mechanism for taking up nutrients. Therefore, using fertilizer is not absolutely required, but it will result in faster and healthier growth.

Most commercial fertilizers will work fine, but take care! Often they are much too strong and might in fact burn the leaves of your plants when applying the recommended dosage.

Diluting the nutrient solution to about 1/4th of the recommended strength. should be within a safe range for Tillandsias. This solution can then be applied throughout spring and summer.

Diseases & Pests

Air plants are generally free of pests, but can get infected by nasty molds. It is sometimes difficult to spot whether stunted growth and leaf browning are caused by an infection or something else. Leaf rot often starts at the base of the plant and spreads upwards from there. 

When in doubt, check for moisture inside the rosette of the plant and pull softly at each of the leaves. If one comes off, look whether the leaf base is brown and soft. If so, you will need to change your watering regime and dry your plants more thoroughly.

Once you have learned to recognize these signs, air plant care should be a breeze! Still not sure what is wrong with your plant? Send us a message and we will help you nursing your plant back to health in no time.