Top Tips for Growing Air Plants

Air plants are very popular in the United States and around the world. One problem people have is keeping their air plants alive and maintaining them. We’ve compiled the best sources to make sure that doesn’t happen to you!

Learning the Baiscs

Julie Martens Forney offers some insight on air plants on HGTV.com.

Air plants, also known as tillandsia, are a type of bromeliad and are native to the Western Hemisphere. Most notably from the southern United States to northern Argentina.

When you find them in their regular habitat, air plants perch above ground. They are able to find their footing in several ways. This includes tree branches, rocks, rooftops and yes, even power lines. Air plants are native in many natural settings, including forests, deserts and rainforests.

Air plants have leaves, roots and can produce flowers. One unique trait about tillandsias, however is that they don’t require soil to grow.

Roots act as anchors in tillandsias, thereby securing plants to their supports. Leaves take care of absorbing moisture, rather than the roots. The leaves on an air plant cover specialized scales in what’s called trichomes. Trichomes are able to absorb water and nutrients. Some trichomes are smooth while others are hairy.

If you have tillandsias in a home situation, give it bright, filtered sunlight. This can be found in an east, south or west-facing window. Gardeners generally put an air plant in a bathroom to take advantage of shower-generated humidity. Still, having enough sunlight is very important.

Being outside, a screened porch or a pool enclosure typically give air plants the filtered sunlight they want.

The trickiest part of growing tillandsias is probably watering them. Air plants usually die when they are inside due to under watering because people wrongly assume they plants absorb moisture from the air.

This situation works when you are on a mountaintop or in a rainforest. But when you are in the comfort of your heated or air-conditioned home, air plants require water.

When to Water

Daily misting doesn’t provide sufficient moisture for air plants. It can help raise humidity around plants, but it won’t ensure survival. If misting causes water to collect where leaves emerge, it can actually kill plants. The best way to water an air plant is to submerge it in a dish of water for 12 hours.

Air plants only take up as much water as they need, so you won’t overwater by doing this.

Use rainwater or bottled drinking water. Avoid using softened water; it’s high in salts. If you live in an area with hard water, the chalk content in the water will eventually clog the trichomes on air plant leaves. When you remove plants from the water, gently shake them upside down a few times to dislodge water from the center of the plant.

types of plastics, Plastic bottles filled with water

In a typical indoor setting, an air plant watered by submerging shouldn’t need watering for 10 to 14 days. Monitor your plant’s appearance to learn when to water. Take note of how the plant looks the day after watering. Note leaf color and appearance. Leaves on a drought-stressed air plant may curl under, color may seem flatter, and leaf tips may turn brown.

To fertilize air plants, use a water-soluble fertilizer developed for ephiphytes, bromeliads or air plants. These specialized fertilizers contain nitrogen in a form air plant leaves can absorb. Add fertilizer to the water before submerging your air plant. For best results, follow package directions.

How to Grow Air Plants

Even though they are easy to care for, there are a few rules to follow when growing air plants:

  • Constant air circulation — as the name indicates — is paramount to keeping your plant happy.
  • Air plants need some moisture; from late spring to mid-autumn, mist daily. In winter, mist only once or twice a week.
  • Fertilize monthly in spring and summer using a low-nitrogen liquid fertilizer mixed at only one-quarter strength. In general, fertilize weakly.
  • Although they love warm weather, most air plants need protection from full sun. If it’s a type that grows naturally wild on trees, keep it in moist, partial shade. If it is a ground type, such as T. cyanea or T. lindenii, grow it indoors in bright, filtered light and outdoors in partial or dappled shade.
  • Don’t let an air plant sit somewhere that’s colder than 45 degrees; it will die at those temperatures. If you live in Zone 9 or warmer, you can grow an air plant outdoors all year if you keep it dry during the winter.

How to Use Air Plants

Air plants look great alone as architectural elements or in an air plants terrarium. Place varieties such as Tillandsia aeranthos ‘Amethyst’, also called the rosy air plant, into a pot or against a container that will complement or contrast with its pink flower spike.

Play off the spikiness of the foliage by grouping three Tillandsia ionantha and add a tiny toucan, parasol, or other tropical touch.

Air plants that are naturally suited to growing in trees can be lashed against a protected wooden post using translucent fishing monofilament and a bit of sphagnum moss to add extra moisture.

Tillandsia species also make fine companions on a planted branch with orchids since they like essentially the same conditions. Hanging air plants are a popular design element.

Caring For Your Air Plants

The aptly named Air Plant City gives its own take on taking care of air plants, as well as some other tips.

Tillandsias grow differently than most other houseplants, so they can be confusing to the beginner. They are really very hardy, and require much less attention than other house plants.

The following simplifies the instruction but you can scroll down for much more specific information.

  1. Provided the atmosphere is not too dry they can survive with water misting and the occasional bath.
  2. Give them bright, filtered light
  3. Protect them from frosts.
  4. If you are growing them indoors and the air is dry, you will need (at minimum) to submerge the plant in water for 2-3 hours about every two weeks.
  5. In a shaded-house or unheated home, you can use a soaking mist once or twice a week in summer, once a month in cooler weather.
  6. You can fertilize by adding a pinch of Bromeliad or Orchid fertilizer to your mister.

Light

Bright filtered light is the general rule, and the higher the humidity of the air the higher light will be tolerated.

Outdoors the silvery-leafed varieties (ex: Xerographica, Harissii)  can usually be grown in full sun, but in an unshaded greenhouse or close to un-shaded glass in a sunny room or conservatory the same plant will quickly burn because the air dries out like an oven.

In a very sunny spot indoors they may need daily misting or weekly soaking depending on which method you prefer.

Artificial light

Full spectrum artificial light (fluorescent) is best. Plant should be no further than 36″ from the fluorescent tubes and can be as close as 6″.

A four-tube 48″ fixture works well. Bulbs can be any full spectrum type Gro-Lux, Repta-Sun, Vita-Lite, etc. Light should be set with a timer, 12 hours per day.

Watering Your Air Plants

Thoroughly wet your Tillandsia 2-3 times per week; more often in a hot, dry environment; less often in a cool, humid one.

In conditions of extreme drying, and consequent moisture loss, Tillandsia cannot get replacement water from their roots like a terrestrial plant, or draw on internal reserves like a succulent.

Type of Water

The Water you use is important. Never use distilled water! Softened Water is a not good either because of the salt content. Filtered water, tap water that has sat long enough for the chlorine to dissipate,  and bottled water are all fine. Pond Water and aquarium water works well as long as they aren’t over crowded with fish and/or reptiles.

Outdoors you may never need to water Tillandsias if you live in humid Southeast or Florida. Indoors, the hotter and drier the air, the more you need to water.

Plants should be given enough light and air circulation to dry in no longer than 3 hours after watering. Wind can be a detriment as the plant dries too quickly. Remember that inside with a window fan as well.

If the plant dries within a very short period of time, it is not hydrating at all. Spray misting is insufficient as the sole means of watering but may be beneficial between regular waterings in dry climates to increase the humidity.

If the plant is in a shell, be sure to empty the water out. Tillandsias will not survive in standing water. Under-watering is evidenced by an exaggerating of the natural concave curve of each leaf.

After wetting your plants thoroughly, turn them upside down and gently shake them. I have found that the water that collects near the base is detrimental if left to long.

I have lost many plants that way while learning. One last thing about watering your air plant – It is much better to water in the morning than at night. Air plants absorb the Carbon Dioxide from the air at night instead of the day time. If the plant is wet, it does not breath therefore, unless it can dry quickly at night, plan on morning baths.

Air Circulation

Following each watering, Tillandsias should be given enough light and air circulation to dry in 4 hours or less. Do not keep plants constantly wet or moist. Do not allow them to dry too quickly though. 1-3 hours is optimum.

Also if the air is hot, a breeze acts to cool the plant and keep it from becoming overheated. Air circulation is import, you can read here how I learned from my first watering mistake as an air plant newbie.

Temperature

Optimum temperature range for Tillandsias is 50 – 90 degrees F. I have kept my plants outside during 40 degree F. weather but only for a night or two knowing it would be warm during the day. Most tillandsia will die with frost.

Fertilizer

Use Bromeliad fertilizer (17-8-22) twice a month. It is great for blooming and reproduction!

Other water-soluble fertilizers can be used at 1/4 strength (Rapid Grow, Miracle-Grow, etc.) if Bromeliad fertilizer is not available. Note Here: If you use pond water or aquarium water, Don’t use fertilizer. Soaking the plants in these waters is a natural fertilizer and can help revive plants that are in distress.

Growth Cycle

Bromeliad Tillandsia have a life cycle of one plant growing to maturity and blooming. Before, during or after blooming (depending on the species) your plant will start producing offsets (Pups), most plants will produce between 2 – 8 pups.

Each plant will flower once in its lifetime, remember that each pup is a plant and it will bloom.

The mist will reach your plants’ roots since they will be dandling in the air, getting all the needed oxygen to grow.

Flowers can last from several days to many months, depending on the species, and different species bloom at different times depending also on its care and environment. You can expect blooms from mid winter through mid summer depending on the plant.

If you leave your plant to clump just remove the leaves of the mother plant as she starts to dry up, just pull the leaves out with a gentle sideways tug, if the leaf resists, its not dead yet, so just trim any dried areas instead.

Once you’ve fully removed the mother plant, the gap that’s left will quickly be filled in by the other plants growing & spreading.

Removing Air Plant Pups

To remove the pups, they should be at least 1/3 to 1/2 the size of the mother plant. Hold both mother and pup at their bases and gently twist in a downward motion.

If this does not happen easily, you may need to remove the pup by cutting downward as close to the mother as possible.

Do not discard the mother plant yet, as long as she is still alive she will continue to produce more pups for you. Often taking several years after blooming before she finally dies.

Mounting Your Tillandsia

Tillandsias can be grown basically anywhere, on rocks, in a seashell or on coral, in ceramic or pottery, attached to wood (not pressure treated wood this is impregnated with copper, and copper will kill your plant). When considering what you are going to do with your plant don’t forget that you have to be able to water it and it has to be placed somewhere that it will get sufficient light.

Try not to put Tillandsias in containers that hold water, they need to dry out. If you do place your plant in something that holds water, empty out the excess after watering your plant. The same thing applies when mounting your plant. Do not surround your plant with Moss. It will hold too much water and will rot your plant.

Attaching Your Air Plant

You can use glue, wire, fishing line, twisty ties, nails or staples. Nails and staples can only be used on plants with a woody stolon or with sufficient roots. DO NOT staple your plant on its fleshy parts as it will kill it. Try to use a waterproof glue such as Liquid Nails, E6000, or hot glue, allowing the glue to cool for 5 seconds.

We can’t stress enough: Do not, not use superglue or copper wire as these will kill your plant.

Caring For Your New Plants After Shipping

Finally, Airplant.com offers its take on caring for air plants. It describes itself as “The Largest Air Plant Grower In North America.” (These instructions are specifically for indoor care.)

air plants

When you receive a new air plant, remove from the shipping package and soak for 30 minutes to 1 hour, submerge upside down. Shake gently to remove excess water, Place in bright light and allow to dry. Do not fertilize plants for 3 weeks following their arrival but be sure to follow directions for light and water. Did you receive your plants as a gift?

Light

Lighting for Tillandsias should be bright but filtered (April – October). They should not be left in the direct sun in the summer months (this will cause the plant to become sunburned ). Tillandsias love direct sun (November – March).

Tillandsias may be grown in the house directly in front of a window. Fresh moving air is advisable, but remember, the most important care need is bright filtered light.

BEWARE: Trees, overhangs and window tinting can rob your plants of needed light. Place plants no further away than 3 feet in front of a bright window.

Artificial Light

Full spectrum artificial light (fluorescent) is best. Plant should be no further than 36″ from the fluorescent tubes and can be as close as 6″.

A four-tube 48″ fixture works well. Bulbs can be any full spectrum type Gro-Lux, Repta-Sun, Vita-Lite, etc. Light should be set with a timer, 12 hours per day.

Water

Thoroughly wet your Tillandsia 2-3 times per week. More often in a hot, dry environment. Less often in a cool, humid one. Plants should be given enough light and air circulation to dry in no longer than 4 hours after watering.

Spray misting is insufficient as the sole means of watering but may be beneficial between regular waterings in dry climates to increase the humidity.

If the plant is in a shell, be sure to empty the water out.  Tillandsias will not survive in standing water.

Under-watering is evidenced by an exaggerating of the natural concave curve of each leaf.

Air Circulation

Following each watering, Tillandsias should be given enough light and air circulation to dry in 4 hours or less. Do not keep plants constantly wet or moist.

Temperature

Optimum temperature range for tillandsias is 50 – 90 degrees F.

Fertilizer

Use Bromeliad fertilizer (17-8-22) twice a month. It is GREAT for blooming and reproduction! Other water-soluble fertilizers can be used at 1/4 strength (Rapid Grow, Miracle-Grow, etc.) if Bromeliad fertilizer is not available.

Tillandsias in Vivariums and Other Animal Enclosures

Enclosures must have at least one side of screen mesh. Full spectrum fluorescent lighting is Ideal full spectrum incandescent lighting will be sufficient when care is taken to avoid placing heat producing bulbs too close to plants.

Greenhouse plants

The higher the wattage, the more distance should be used to avoid burning or heat-damage to plants. Good air circulation and proper watering schedule must be maintained.

Mounting Tillandsias

Mount plants on almost anything, – Driftwood, manzanita, seashells, coral, lava rock, crystals using a non – water soluble glue such as E-6000 Adhesive. Set plants on the prospective mount. If you like the arrangement, proceed.

Place adhesive on mount, and then place plants onto that area. Larger plants may be supported with fishing line until glue dries. Cover exposed adhesive area with sawdust or sand to camouflage.

Outdoor Care

These instructions are specifically for outdoor care.

Light

Lighting for Tillandsias should be bright but filtered (April – October). Tillandsias love direct sun (November – March). They grow best in a greenhouse or a frost – protected, shaded patio.

They also can be grown in the house directly in front of a window. Fresh moving air is advisable but remember the most important care need is bright filtered light.

Water

Thoroughly wet your Tillandsia 2-3 times per week; more often in a hot, dry environment; less often in a cool, humid one. Plants should be given enough light and air circulation to dry in no longer than 4 hours after watering.

Spray misting is insufficient as the sole means of watering but may be beneficial between regular waterings in dry climates to increase the humidity. If the plant is in a shell, be sure to empty the water out.

Tillandsias will not survive in standing water. An exaggerating of natural concave curve of each leaf is evidence of under-watering.

Temperature

Optimum temperature range for tillandsias kept outdoors is 50 – 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fertilizer

Use Bromeliad fertilizer (17-8-22) twice a month. It is GREAT for blooming and reproduction! Other water-soluble fertilizers can be used at 1/4 strength (Rapid Grow, Miracle-Grow, etc.) if Bromeliad fertilizer is not available.

h/t: HGTV, Better Homes And Gardens, Air Plant City, AirPlant.com

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David Knoch
 

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