How to care for Tillandsia “air-plants"
Updated: Jan 28
The following is a general care guide for Tillandsia ‘air-plants’. There is a bullet-point version at the bottom of the page for those who don’t have time to read the entire article.
"When it comes to air-plants, rainwater is best…"
Rainwater is ideal for soaking air-plants, if you collect rainwater, you have the ideal water to soak your air-plants in. Tap water contains minerals, chlorine/chloramine, and fluoride, and other compounds that may harm your air-plants. Also, in my home country of Ireland, it is not uncommon to have high levels of calcium carbonate in your tap water. High levels of calcium carbonate is evident by limescale build up in kitchen appliances such as the kettle. If you live in an area with high limescale, avoid using tap water to soak your air-plants. All in all, there are plenty of reasons not to use tap-water for your air-plants.
“If you don't have access to rain water, filtered water, and bottled spring water are a good option for soaking/dunking/spraying your air-plants with…”
Many people have reverse osmosis (RO) water filtration systems fitted in the home kitchen these days, this water is very similar to rainwater. If you don’t have access to rainwater, or RO water, you could use a BRITA style water filter, or bottled spring water. Be wary of using water that has gone through a water softener i.e. those things under your kitchen sink that you add the salt tablets to, the high levels of salt will harm houseplants.
“Soak and/or dunk your air-plants once or twice a week to help them thrive”
To soak your air-plant(s) fill a container with water and allow to reach room temperature, if you want to speed this up, you can pop the water in the microwave for a minute or so. The water should be ~18 - 21 ℃. Add fertiliser to the water if desired. Air-plants are classified as epiphytes (plants that live on other plants), they require only low levels of nutrients, similar to orchids. If using a general houseplant feed, I would use a fraction of the recommended dose, if the directions on the bottle state 10 ml for 10 L, instead I use 1 – 2 ml to 10 L of water when soaking my airplants. It is not necessary to add nutrients every time you soak your air-plants, once or twice a month during growing season should be enough.
“The ideal pH of water for soaking/spraying your air-plant is about pH 6.00.”
Once the water is at room temperature, and you have added the nutrients, adjust the pH of the water - nutrient solution to ~ pH 6.00. If you have no idea what pH is, or how to adjust pH you might want to ignore this step. If you enjoy learning new knowledge and skills, and you want to provide the very best care for your air-plants I recommend purchasing a pH meter, and pH up/down solution, and learning how to adjust the pH of your water/ nutrient solution. Now that your water is at the correct temperature, you’ve added nutrients, and adjusted the pH, place them in the water and leave to soak for about an hour, or longer if necessary.
Depending on the type of airplant you have you will soak them for a shorter, or longer period of time. Air-plants should be soaked or dunked once or twice a week. However, there are many factors in determining how often or how long you should soak your airplant(s) for. I sometimes soak airplants overnight, it depends on many factors such as: the type of air-plant(s) you have, your home environment, position in the home, and light levels. Your airplant should be 'plump' and full looking, not dry, dehydrated or wrinkly.
Air-plants have microscopic “hairs” on their their skin called trichomes, these trichomes give air-plants their silver sheen. Trichome hairs absorb water and protect the plants from light. As a general rule, the more trichomes an airplant has (i.e. the more silvery, and fuzzy it is) the more light it can tolerate, and the longer it can go without water/ the less water it needs.
“The less often you soak your airplants, the longer you should soak them for.”
Let’s look at two of my favourite air-plants as an example: Tillandsia caput-medusae and Tillandsia fasciculata, both are available to purchase on our website verdantonline.ie. Tillandsia caput-medusae air-plants have many trichomes, they appear fuzzy. When soaking my T. caput-medusae, I soak them for about an hour, sometimes I just dunk them in water for a few seconds. On the other hand T. fasciculata appears green with a light silver sheen, and does not have as many trichomes as T caput-medusae. When soaking my T. fasciculata, I often soak for multiple hours, and sometimes I leave them to soak overnight.
When you are finished soaking your airplants, remove them from the water. The next step is very important, it is crucial that we make sure the air-plant(s) dry completely within a few hours. We do not want to leave the airplants anywhere cold and/or damp, especially after soaking. Hanging the airplant upside down, or placing the airplant upside down temporarily to let any excess water drain off is a good first step. I often give them a shake after removing from the water to get most of the water out of the crevices. I like to place my airplants beside a fan after soaking to make sure that they dry quickly, and thoroughly, this will prevent/minimise the chance of any rotting from occurring.
“The more trichomes the air-plant has the more light it can tolerate”.
If like me, you are in Ireland, the best place for an air-plant is in a south facing room, hung on a wall or positioned on a desk, close by a window. Also, behind a net curtain in a south facing room is pretty ideal. Air-plants require bright indirect sun light, some even enjoy a few hours of direct sun light e.g. T. caput-medusae. I hang my airplants in my south facing bathroom. The window in my bathroom is frosted which diffuses the light, also in the bathroom the air-plants have the added benefit of the humid environment in the bathroom. It is not advisable to put an air-plant directly in a south facing window as the glass tends to intensify the suns light. However, in the winter/spring when there are less hours of light per day, it is recommended to move plants closer to the window. In the picture below you can see some of my airplants hanging directly in a south facing window during spring months.
However, each home is different, and each air-plant is different. I have a long south facing back garden with little or no shade cast from houses or trees, so my sitting room window receives full sun all day long (when the sun is out that is). I have kept air-plants directly in this south facing window with varying success, my T. caput-medusae did well with no ill affects, my T. fasciculata suffered a bit in the intense light and seemed stressed/dehydrated. I have since moved the T. fasciculata, they now hang from my Hoya linearis, this gives them some protection from the sun (see picture below). I also use LED/fluorescent lighting to supplement the light hours during the winter months. A small desk-lamp with an LED light bulb positioned about 10-20 cm away will keep your air-plants happy during the dark months.
If you have read this far, thank you! I hope this article has helped clear up some of the mysteries around caring for air-plants. Keep an eye out for updates to this article and new articles e.g. "how to display air-plants around the home".
1. Soak air-plants once a week for approximately one hour. Failing this soak for longer when you do soak.
2. Use rainwater to soak air-plants, if you don’t have access to rainwater, use filtered or bottled spring water.
3. Add some nutrients to the water once or twice a month, ~ 10 – 20 % of the recommended dose for general purpose houseplant feed.
4. Spray plants in between soakings. Add fertiliser to spray bottle on occasion, ~ 25 % recommended dose for general purpose houseplant feed, and ~ 50 % recommended dose if using orchid feed.
5. Adjust pH of soaking/ spraying water to pH 6.00 before soaking/ spraying air-plants.
6. After soaking, gently shake plants to remove excess water. Position in a warm and dry area to dry. If you have a fan (e.g. a desk fan) use it to help dry the air-plants by placing fan beside air-plants for 1 - 2 hours. Ensure air-plants are fully dry before putting back in display.