In Depth Care Guide
Tillandsia, or air plants as they are commonly known, comprise one of the most diverse genera of plants in existence. These plants are highly unique for there ability to grow without soil or a pot, making them very versatile in the way they can be displayed and enjoyed. Below you will find some general guiding principals that will help keep your air plants happy and healthy. It is always encouraged to do research on the specific species you own to ensure care is tailored to the needs of your air plants.
Tillandsia are evergreen, perennial flowering plants in the family Bromeliaceae native to the forests, mountains and deserts of Central and South America, the southern United States, and the West Indies. Tillandsia are epiphytes, which means they grow without soil while and typically grow in the ground, on other plants, and on rocks. These plants absorb moisture and nutrients through the trichomes (small hairs) on their leaves from rain, dew, dust, decaying leaves and insect matter. Generally speaking, air plants can be placed in two distinct classifications based on their native environments; xeric and mesic plants. This can sometimes be viewed as more of a spectrum than a category, but it’s a good rule of thumb to start with:
- Mesic plants
These plants are commonly found under a rainforest canopy or other humid, densely covered forests. These plants generally do better with more frequent waterings and indirect light. These plants are considered the less hardy of the two classifications as they are not as tolerant of high light levels or extended periods of drought. These plants are distinguished by smooth green leaves, the trichomes barely visible on the leaves. Species like brachycaulos, bulbosa, and andreana are all good examples of mesic plants.
- Xeric Plants
Xeric plants generally grow at higher altitudes and are exposed to higher levels of light. Of the two plant types, xeric plants are considered a little hardier. These plants generally require less water and can tolerate higher light levels, including some direct sun light. These plants are characterized by pronounced trichomes which make the plants appear grey, silver, or fuzzy. Examples of xeric plants include tectorum, xerographica, and caput-medusae.
Why don't air plants need soil or a pot?
Because air plants absorb moisture and nutrients through their leaves and not their roots, there is not need to put them in soil and pot. In fact, many species will do poorly if placed in soil. The purpose of roots on air plants is to allow the plant to grow onto tree branches and rocks. If you mount your plants using glue or wire, you will see the air plant slowly grow onto that surface, and the roots are quite strong! If you desire, you may also cut off any existing roots without bringing harm to the plant.
Watering air plants
There are several schools of thought on the most effective way to water air plants. Below you will find a description of each. Even though they differ pretty significantly, you can choose the one that best fits your needs and tendencies as a plant parent.
- Soaking is a method of watering your plants in which you fill a bowl or container big enough for your plants to be fully submerged in water, and set your plants in it for 30-60 minutes once a week or 2-4 hours 2-3 times a month. This is the preferred method if deep, infrequent watering works better for you. Depending on the heat, humidity, and where your plants are placed, you may need to adjust the frequency of waterings
- Misting/watering can is your other option. This method will work well for you if you spend a lot of time with your plants and don’t mind more frequent waterings. This method involves using a hose, spray bottle, or watering can to wet the entire plant. This method closely mimics the way these plants receive water in their natural habit, which is why it is my preferred method. It will require watering your plants 2-3 times per week, depending on temperature, humidity, and where your plants are placed
Along with following one of the watering schedules above, here are some general rules to know:
- No living organism on this planet can survive without water. While these plants will take as much moisture from the air that they can, they do still require waterings on a regular basis and will not survive without it outside of its native habitat. "Air plant" does not mean air alone will give it what it needs
- Plants should dry out completely in between waterings, and any water sitting in the plants leaves after watering should be shaken out to avoid rotting. A good rule of thumb is that plants should dry out completely within 6-8 hours of watering
- The best water your plants can get is rain water or reverse osmosis water. Try to avoid straight tap water when possible; it generally has elevated salt and chlorine levels can be harmful to more sensitive plants. If you do not have rain water, fill your water can or bowl a day in advance; while the water sits out, the chlorine and other chemicals will burn off. Generally 24 hours of wait time is recommended for water to be free of potentially harmful chemicals and minerals
Caring for your plants as they grow
When you know what you’re looking for, plants are pretty good about telling you what they are getting too much or not enough of. If you feel like your plants aren’t doing well, take a look at some of these common challenges:
- Root rot: Root rot occurs when the root ball of a plant has been oversaturated with water. Root rot is dangerous because by the time you realize it is happening, it is probably too late to save the plant. Root rot can appear cosmetically on the outside leaves of the plant, especially in species with bulbous bases like seleriana, xerographica, and streptophylla. Root rot can also happen fron the center of the plant, this is easy to determine by simply giving a light tug to the center leaves of the plant. If the whole ceter or several leaves comes our, the plant has rotted. The best way to avoid this is to shake your plants out after watering or ensure strong air flow around the plant, along with letting the plants dry out completely between waterings
- Not enough light: If the root ball or base of the plant begins to turn a brownish-grey color and starts to spread outwards, your plant needs a good two hour soak and some strong indirect sunlight. Additionally, browning on the tips of the leaves can be an indicator of this (could also be underwatering or overfertilizing). Similar to root rot, it is important to catch this problem immediately. A good rule of thumb is that if you need to turn a light on in a room during the day to be able to perform normal activities (reading, folding laundry, etc.), there is not going to be enough light for an air plant. East, west, and south facing windows are ideal if you will have the plants inside, any strong indirect light (patio, sunshade, walkway, etc) is ideal for plants outside (consider mesic vs. xeric!) Color changing and blushing species will not perform their typical color show under low light conditions (ionantha, brachycaulous, capitata, etc.)
- Pests: Good news! Pests seem to leave tillandsias alone for the most part. I will occasionally see mosquitos congregate around recently watered plants, or an occasional mealybug hanging out under an old leaf that already should have been removed. Spiders will make webs in outdoor plants, but they mean no harm. Rabbits and mice have been known to eat flowers and leaves from time to time. Lastly, certain plants with bulbous bases, called myrmecophytes, will house colonies of ants. This is common in bulbosa.
- Flowers and pups: All of your air plants at one point or another will produce flowers. You can allow these to live out their bloom, and cut them from the plant where they attach once they have completely died and withered. Not all plants produce a flower every year, and bloom cycles are in part dependent upon the quality of care the plants are receiving. Baby plants, or pups as they are commonly referred to, generally follow shortly after a bloom cycle. The pups will grow from the base of the plant or from the bloom spike of the flowers in viviparous species. Pups should be left on the mother plant until they are 1/3 to ½ the size of the mother plant. At that point you can gently twist and pull the pups off, cut them off with a small sharp knife, or allow them to continue to grow with the mother
- Burning: These plants are not exempt from getting a sunburn. Crisping on the edges of the leaves, or brown spots on the middle of the leaves are signs that your plants are getting burned. Try moving your plants to an area that doesn’t get as much direct sun. Might want to give them a little more water while you’re at it
- Fertilizer: Fertilizer can encourage the healthy growth of your plants, including the bloom cycle, root health, and pup production. I personally recommend a fertilizer with an NPK ratio of 16-8-22 or something close to it. The fertilizer will mix into your water with ease. Any epiphyte fertilizer should do, which includes orchid and bromeliad fertilizers. Follow the directions provided on the fertilizer you buy. OVER FERTILIZING DOES NOT MEAN THE PLANT WILL GROW BIGGER FASTER. In most cases, over fertilizing will kill the plant.
Finding a home for your plants
When given a proper amount of light, water, and air flow, air plants can thrive in a variety of environments, like inside your house, on a patio, or hanging from trees in your yard.
- Plants can be glued to wood or other materials using a plant safe glue (always check the label, buy it from a garden store) or mounted with wire (use a plastic coated wire, no copper wire). I am not personally aware of any advantages that one has over the other. Over time, the plants roots might actually grow and attach the plant to the surface it is mounted on
- Plants can be set on shelves, in bowls, or even orbs, but make sure the plant still gets air flow. Do not put the plants in any sealed containers, and do not stuff them into a container, creating a seal between the plant and the object (a vase for example)
- I encourage you to consider creating a schedule to move your plants to different areas of the house, patio, or outdoors every 2-4 weeks. Not only does it bring new energy and design concepts to your space, but it also allows you to see how different plants do in different environments
Above all else, enjoy the heck out of these bad boys! Remember, you are growing plants in an environment that is not native to them; plants dying is not a sign of failure, it’s a sign that Mother Nature is a much better gardener than us!