A Starter's Guide to Air Plants
When I got my first air plant, I had a hard time even grasping the idea of how air plants survive. Over the years, I've learned there is A LOT one can learn and know about these plants. If you are new to air plants, these are the fundamentals to live by; a distilled summary of a world of knowledge.
Air Flow, Water, and Light
In order for an air plant to survive and thrive, it requires three elements; air flow, water, and light. As you may know, air plants grow in a diverse range of climates and conditions. Each individual species will need more or less of each element than another. It's important to shop with a purpose so you get a plant perfect for your environment and you know how to give it the care it needs.
In my experience so far, an overwhelming number of air plants die due to extreme neglect (never watering) or rot (never getting to dry out). To avoid the latter, follow these rules:
- Plants should dry out completely within 6-8 hours of watering. Gently shake off excess water before returning a plant to it's home.
- Plants grown indoors will have a harder time drying out because air isn't moving as much inside, making it harder for the plant to dry. To aid indoor plants in the drying process, leave them upside down to dry, put them near an open window, or under/next to a fan. You can also take your indoor plants outside on watering days, that is what we do with our indoor ones.
- In general, the thinner the leaf, the more air flow the plant will want. This is why species like fuchsii, andreana, and juncea have a tougher time indoors; these plants grow in areas where moisture is heavy and frequent. Their thin leaves allow them to dry out quicker, but in order to do so, they need strong air flow.
Air plants are desirable for many reasons; one of which is that they are low water use and/or drought tolerant. Some species are equipped to go month(s) without a good watering, however others cannot survive without a good watering every few days. It is important to understand where the plants you have come from; this will help you understand the type of environment you should look to create with your plants.
In general, air plants cannot be overwatered unless they never get a chance to dry out. This is why in the previous section we emphasized the importance of air flow in aiding the drying process. The frequency and method of watering depend on a few factors; primarily species, temperature, humidity, and season.
- Consider whether the plant is mesic or xeric (see in depth guide for more info). Mesic wants more water, less light. Xeric wants less water, more light.
- The hotter it is, the more water your plants need. The colder it is, the less water your plants need.
- The more humid it is, the less often you need to water. The less humid it is, the more often you need to water.
- Water less in the winter (no more than once a week) and more in the summer (Spring and Fall during warm periods as well).
All of that considered, in general, you will want to water your plants about twice a week. This is a good place to start and adjust from there. You can achieve this with a spray bottle, a pump sprayer, running it under the sink, dunking in a bucket/bowl, or similar method that allows the plant to be completely and momentarily saturated with water.
You can also soak most species in lieu of spraying them. Soaking is recommended for up to two hours once a week and for longer durations of time as necessary. We personally recommend the first method over soaking only, but we do soak as necessary with extra thirsty plants.
These plants grow in a diverse range of conditions. Some are equipped for full day sun and infrequent water, similar to a cactus. Others want no direct light and require heavy, frequent watering. We encourage you to read the in dpeth guide as well, particularly the mesic vs. xeric section to understand what to look for based on the space you have. Here are a few general guidelines:
- There are not many species that can handle the sunlight we receive from 11am-3pm (writing this in San Diego, hardiness zone 10). Most can handle our early morning and late afternoon sunlight.
- Species considered mesic are overall better plants for indoor based on their need for less light.
- In general, all air plants want strong indirect light. Light passing through shade netting or greenhouse panels is great, but it could also be the strong light that comes in through a south-facing window.
- Air plants can grow in offices! We have had plants survive for over a year and counting in an office with no windows. LED lights can do the trick, try to keep your plants at least 3 feet away from the light.
- Plants are not immune from sunburns. If you seen brown spots forming in the middle of a plant's leaves, especially right after you move it to a sunny new spot.
- If a plant starts browning on the tips of the leaves, it could mean it isn't getting enough light.
Tillandsias can be extremely rewarding to grow and care for. Look for the right balance of air flow, water, and light, and you are on a road to success. In the end, mother nature is a better gardener than us; if you can't keep a plant alive, understand you put it in an unnatural environment and some plants just aren't cool with that.