Air Plant Survival Guide

Written by
Connor Talbott

Air Plant Survival Guide

" 'oh, you have an air plant!' My friend replied, 'It died.' "
Written by
Connor Talbott

Air Plant Survival Guide

" 'oh, you have an air plant!' My friend replied, 'It died.' "

Ok, so I went a little overboard on details (and images) for this post. As you’ll be able to tell I’m a little obsessed with air plants.

This post has been half written for some time now. I’m starting to regret not getting it published sooner to help air plant owners.

Just a couple days ago, I saw a friend who had an air plant as their phone’s home screen background. I said, “oh, you have an air plant!” My friend replied, “It died.” :(

If you have any suggestions on how you care for your air plants, or see something I missed, please comment below.

Air Plant Guide Overview

Air Plants, also known as Tillandsias, are easy to care for once you know what to watch for. I’ve owned Air Plants for about six years now in Washington State. Three years in dry Eastern Washington, and 3 years in wet Western Washington. I own about 26 different air plant breeds.

I spend about 15 - 30 mins per week of care.

With this guide, I hope your air plants bear a lot of pups (offspring).

This Air Plant Guide Will Cover

  1. Watering
  2. Fertilizer
  3. Light
  4. Airflow
  5. Temperature
  6. Location
  7. Adjust methods as you see fit

Watering

This is the most difficult part when it comes to caring for your air plant. There are some big factors that determine how much water you should give to your plant. Too much water, it will die, too little water, it will die.

So unfortunately there’s no easy answer for, “how much”, due to:

  • Seasonal changes
  • Size and shape of your plant
  • Risk of rot from over watering
  • Light
  • Air flow
  • Temp
  • Location

Below I’ll go over each of these factors.

Before that, though, I want to give you my biggest piece of watering advice: Keep an eye on your plant until you know how much water it prefers. Every time you water your plant, take a close look, is it looking green and vibrant? Or dull and yellow? Maybe it’s starting to rot (see the, “Risk of Overwatering” section below to learn more about rot).

Again, each air plant is different. Get to know what your plant likes in your area by routine inspections. Learn about what climate your air plant lives in naturally.

With a little understanding though this tillandsia watering guide, I’m confident you’ll take good care of your rootless friend.

Summer vs. Winter Care

Ok, if there’s only one thing you take away from this air plant watering guide, it’s this: your air plants require much more water during the summer than in the winter. How much more? I found the difference to be large.

Summer

Watering in the summer is simple.

In the summer I keep my air plants outside, (I suggest you do the same unless it’s too hot for them, see below under “temperature”).

I hose down the smaller and skinnier leafed air plants down daily until they are well soaked.

As for the large and bulkier plants, I only slightly mist them daily. Maybe to the point to where I can see that half of the leafs have gotten water on them. However, every few days or so, I get them really soaked. After you do this, make sure you shake out all the excess water that gets caught in their leafs to prevent rot (see section below about rot).

Important Note: if you keep your plants inside during the summer and you have air conditioning, you don’t need to water them nearly as much. I don’t have air conditioning, but I’d suggest watering the large ones every two weeks or so. And for the smaller ones I’d water about once a week.

Winter

In the winter, your air plants have a higher risk of rot; so you don’t want to water them as much.

As you water your plants, avoid soaking the bases of them (especially the larger plants). This is where rot will occur.

The way I water them, is I soak the small ones for about 20 minutes (i’m sure up to an hour or two is fine). With the larger plants I avoid soaking the bases. Typically, I will only dunk the leafs of the larger plants for only a matter of seconds and not get the base wet at all.

Do not fully submerge the larger air plants in the winter.

How often should you water your air plant in the winter?

I’ll water my air roughly every other week in the winter. This is a lot different from the summer watering schedule.

How much you water them in the winter, again, comes down to their size. See below.

Size of Your Plant

One of the biggest factors on how much you should water your air plant depends on how large your plant is.

Large Air Plants require about half as much water as smaller varieties.

Efficiency tip: I keep my air plants separated on two different racks, ones that require high water, and ones that require low water.

Shape of Your Air Plant

Does your Air Plant have long skinny leafs? Or fat chunky leafs?

Plants with long skinny leafs require more water because they dry out faster due to having a high surface area. On the other hand, fat leafs require less watering.

Risk of Overwatering - Preventing Rot

Factors that cause rot

  • Too much water
  • Poor air flow
  • Not enough light

Help reduce rot by:

  • Pulling back the dead leafs
  • Less water
  • When watering, keep water away from the base of plant
  • Place in a location with more air flow
  • Dump/shake out any excess water after watering
  • Place in a location with more light

How to inspect for rot

When I start to check my air plants for rot, I pull back dry and close to dead leafs, I wouldn't necessarily pull them off unless they come off easily. Pull back some of the dry/dead leafs helps air flow, and helps to slow down and/or stop rot. Sitting water, from overwatering, is the main factor in causing rot.

But anyway, there’s a few things I’m looking for when inspecting my plant. After I pull a dead/almost-dead leaf back, I look at the base to see if there’s any suspicious looking yellow color, or any brown specks or lines.

Also keep in mind that if healthy looking green leafs with yellow bases are easy to pull off the plant, this is a big concern. With healthy plants, it is harder to pull off leafs.

I wish I had more images of rot to show, on the other hand, I’m glad that I’ve figure out how to avoid rot.

How do I save my air plant from rot?

If i’m starting to see signs of rot, I’ll pull back healthy looking leafs. If these healthy looking leafs also have the same discoloration (see above), I start thinking about ways to save the plant.

First off, stop watering your air plant. If your plant needs water, keep water away from the base of the plant. Only water the leafs.

Pull back, or pull off, the leafs that are dying. This allows for better airflow to get to the base.

Find a location with better air flow. I keep my air plants on wire shower racks where they can a lot of air flow.

Is there a location you can set the plants where they will get more light?

Risk of Under watering

A slow death.

You might be able to revive your plant. I threw away an air plant once that I thought had zero hope of making it. It was brown and didn’t have any green on it. Walking by the trash hours later, I thought I might as well as try to bring it back from the dead. And it worked! I soaked it in water for a couple hours, and started to provide it with extra water compared to the rest of my plants over the next weeks, and sure enough it survived!

Just watch out for rot when you up the watering schedule.

Fertilizer

When my air plants are outside I don’t fertilize them. My guess is that they get the little food they need from airborne sources. However, maybe fertilizer would help them grow even more?

In the winter when they are inside, I very lightly add fertilizer to the water I soak them in. I would suggest about a quarter of the amount you would use with soil bound plants.

I use some really basic foam plant food that seems to work well. I typically only use about a quarter of a pump in roughly a gallon or two of water.

Light

Compared to other factors, light, although very important, is more flexible.

Bright indirect sunlight is best for about 4 - 6 hours a day (imagine a bright day with thin clouds passing in front of the sun). Having your plant sit on your office desk isn’t a good idea. Although this plant could probably live with that much light for a long time, it will grow slowly, and also have an increased risk of rot. The chance of it producing pups (offspring), will also be low. See section above.

I prefer direct sunlight. Mainly because this is convenient for me. I have my air plants sitting below a tree so that In the summer my plants get an 1 - 3 hours of direct morning sunlight, and 30 mins or so of direct light in the evening. Last summer they were even getting more like 4 hours of direct morning/midday sunlight, but this was a little much. Do not let them sit in direct sun midday for too long, this will burn, and possibly kill them.

In the winter, ideally I would want them to get roughly 2 hours of direct sunlight sitting in front of a window. High indirect light is also good. However, saying I live in the Seattle area, two hours of direct sunlight is rare. If there are too many days that have low light, I will set up a basic light source such as a lamp, and have that shine on them for a majority of the day. This lamp will be roughly 4 feet from the plants.

Remember, the intensity of a light bulb at 8 feet, is roughly one hundredth of the sun’s intensity.

Make sure you turn this light off at night! They need to rest.

Transition From Low to High Light (Important!)

Also keep in mind the transition of going from low light to high light conditions. If you air plant is used to getting very low light, and you place it in high light conditions, you risk damaging your plant. Slowly transition your plant, giving it more and more light every couple or few days.

The main thing is this, if your air plant gets next to zero sun in the winter, and then is blasted with 4 hours of direct sunlight outside in the summer, you could harm your plant!

Air Flow

Low airflow leaves plants at high risk for rot. See section under “Watering” for more info on rot.

Air plants are typically dwell in trees, where there is a lot of air flow. A desk inside, will not provide this.

Tip: Bathroom shower racks work well. The wire structure allows for good airflow.

Temperature

Once the nightly low temp falls below 55 degrees fahrenheit, I bring them inside. I’ve had them sit outside in temps closer to 50 degrees before, but I try to avoid this.

As for a max temperature, I’ve had my air plants in some pretty intense heat for multiple days. Temps probably got close to 95 degrees fahrenheit. Move them to a location with more shade if this is the case. Make sure you water them almost daily in these temperatures (see watering section).

My advice is to look up your specific air plant, and see the climate it naturally lives in!

Location

Your air plants cannot walk. Their environment to survive depends on you.

Air plants greatly prefer being outside, from what I have observed. Depending on where you live, this might not be possible.

Look over the main points of this guide when planning on a location for your plant, and ask yourself:

  • Is my air plant be getting to much water and rot?
  • Is my air plant get getting to little water and die?
  • Will my air plant be getting enough light?
  • Etc.

In most cases I do not suggest leaving you air plant in the bathroom. I have never done this, but from my experiences from learning about what air plants like and don’t like, leaving you air plant in the bathroom could result in the plants death due to low light and rot.

If someone has had an air plant live in a bathroom for more than a couple years, please comment below.

Adjust as you see fit

My conclusing is this, keep a close eye on your tillandsia until you know what it likes best. Soon You’ll start to notice how much water it likes, and doesn’t like.

To give yourself a head start, look up the name of your specific air plant, and see where it naturally lives. What temperatures does it get there? How much water does it get there?

My methods probably won’t work for everyone saying there are soooo many factors at play, however, with some practice you can learn how to best care for your air plant in your climate and house.

Conclusion

In the future I will come back to this guide and update it. For example I’d like to add a section on pups (offspring).

If you have any suggestions, or see something I missed, please comment below to help other air plant owners from not accidentally killing their children.

Air Plant Image Gallery

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