In recent years Tillandsia, commonly referred to as air plants, have become increasingly popular. These little epiphytes fly in the face of our understanding of traditional plant requirements, and that uniqueness makes them intriguing. Because of their mysterious nature, creating beautiful air plant displays is so effortless that anyone can do it — one of the reasons they make such great gifts. Unfortunately, if they are not grown in the right conditions, they can also be relatively easy to kill. In this article, we will cover Tillandsia growth patterns, general care information, how to build a Tillandsia terrarium, and the equipment necessary for them to flourish.
As with all air plants, we need to understand how Tillandsia grow in order to best care for them. Tillandsia are epiphytes, which means that they typically live on other plants in a non-parasitic manner. They can be broken into two distinct categories: mesic and xeric. Mesic varieties are often found high in the tree canopy of the American tropics, which informs us that they typically like bright indirect light, good airflow, frequent rainfall, and have roots meant for anchoring. On the other hand, xeric varieties grow on exposed cliff faces and rocky outcroppings. These types of air plants need far less water, prefer small doses of direct sunlight and plenty of air movement, and also have roots meant for anchoring. The xeric varieties differ from the mesic in the trichomes that cover their leaves to draw extra moisture from the air. They almost appear to have a silver fur, as opposed to the shinier greenish hue of the mesic air plants.
Understanding the native conditions under which Tillandsia thrive allow us to create a better environment for them in our homes. Since all Tillandsia do well under humid conditions, I always recommend keeping them in an open terrarium. The trick is to create an environment that has a higher relative humidity than our typical homes, but also has good airflow. Keeping a Tillandsia under a cloche or in a closed terrarium can only end with a doomed plant. So look for glass containers with holes in the sides, or a large top opening.
While traditional terrariums require many layers (as discussed in a previous blog post), an air plant terrarium really only needs one: the drainage layer. The goal of the drainage media is to keep the plants from ever sitting in water and can consist of almost anything that won’t rot. You can also add some moss or lichen for decoration and to increase the humidity.
Lastly, but perhaps mostly importantly, Tillandsia need proper light levels. Many people try to keep their air plants in too low light. Our homes are caves compared to their natural habitats. Ideally, try to keep them in either an east or west facing window. They can also be away from or to the side of a bright south facing window. The objective is to have bright indirect light during the middle of the day with a couple hours of direct sun either in the morning or afternoon.
So, to recap, the basics to create a good home for Tillandsia are an open glass vessel, inert drainage media, perhaps some decorative moss, and proper light levels.
The equipment to properly water and feed these little oddities are mostly items you can find around your home. In her book Air Plants: The Curious World of Tillandsias, Zenaida Sengo best describes how to water air plants by comparing them to a kitchen sponge. You don’t want the sponge to dry out completely, and you can water it by several different methods: frequent misting, regular dunking, or occasional soaking.
Misting should occur every day or every other day using a small spray bottle. To dunk a plant, you can run it under the sink in a colander, in a terrarium with a deep drainage layer, or dunk it in a bowl of water two to three times a week. To soak the plants, remove them from their container and soak them in a bowl of water for 10 minutes to an hour once a week. Regardless of the method you choose, water collected in the cup of the leaves should be shaken out to prevent the plants from rotting. Remember: xeric varieties will need to be watered less frequently.
Like all plants, Tillandsia need to be fed occasionally for optimal growth. I recommend combining a kelp product in solution with a balanced water soluble orchid food. You can feed them with half a dose every couple weeks, or a full dose every month to three months.
With this basic understanding, you should be ready to successfully cultivate these little wonders!
barbara white says
my tillandsia came with a cactus-looking centre which gave small purple flowers around its edge.10 months later,having cared for it as advised, the leaves are strong and curved but the cactus appears to be totally dried up and hollow. Do I cut this dead bit off at base?
barbara white says
my tillandsia came with central cactus -looking growth bearing purple blooms. This has now dried up completely- do I cut it off at base?
Yes – once your tillandsia has bloomed and the bloom dies, you should cut it off at the base of the”stem”. This will help promote the growth of baby plants at the base of the “mama”. When the babies are 1/3-1/2 the size of the mama want, you can twist and pull them free to create new plants, or you can leave them in place to replace the mama when it eventually dies.
Myrna Roxburgh says
My friend left her air plant with me for two weeks without much instruction except squirt it at its base once every second day. It has brown ends, and she keeps breaking them off. Is this the way to look after one of these plants. It is the xerox air plant.
Hi there I’m in love with These plants i collected rain water in a container is it ok to reuse this water and for how long the container has a lid Thanx much
Rain water is actually fantastic to use on plants, because it doesn’t contain the chemicals that treated water does. If you have a lid on your container, you shouldn’t have to worry abut mosquito larvae growing in your water, so that’s a plus!
Thank you Ashley! So it is okay to use the same water or should new water be collected?
You should be able to keep using the collected rainwater until it is gone. We use our rain barrel water continuously as it fills with rain and gets depleted by us, and refilled with another shower, etc. etc.
Joyce Mackey says
My air plant broke off at the stem. It’s 9 years old. Can I re-root it?
My air plant is growing too big for the enclosed glass container it is in. How do I remove it from the container? Do I break the container and put it in another? This plant is growing and I would love to be able to keep it.
If the glass container is truly enclosed, to where there is no way of removing the plant without breaking the glass, then eventually, yes, you will need to break the container if you want to keep your air plant. Good luck!
I’ve been told that tap water cannot be used to water air plants, it will kill them and only bottled water can be used. Is this true?
Hi Katherine, Rain water or bottled water is going to be the best to water with, but it is not necessary in most cases. One good tip is to run your tap water into an open container and let it sit for 24 hours to let the chlorine “off gas” before using the water on your plants. Cheers!
Can hydroponic gel beads (the ones that retain water and plump up) be used to place the air plants in? The plants aren’t exactly sitting in water but they are on top of the beads that hold the water. Thanks for any help you can give.
Hi! I got a tillandsia cyanea as a gift around 4 months ago. I found some information online and sprayed it approximately once a week. When I got it, it had the astonishing pink quill and some buds that seemed like they were just about to flower. Unfortunately it never flowered and after a while the bract became green. One month ago the bract started to get brown in the middle but I could see 2 little pups around it. I was not sure of what to do, I thought it should be ok if left like that so that the pups grow up a little more. One week ago the bract totally died off and the whole plant kind of looked miserable so I decided to cut it. The next day the pups seemed to have dried out totally and every day since then the outer leaves dry out. What did I do wrong? should I have cut the bract earlier? I am so sad, is there a way to revive the plant?
It sounds to us like you may not have watered enough for your plant’s health. We recommend misting daily or every other day. If you want a weekly watering schedule, you’ll need to really soak your plants (and then shake off excess water). Non-chlorinated water is best, if possible. At this point, I’d try to soak your plant and see if it is recoverable. Good luck!
Cindy in VT. Dec.1 2019
I have acquired 40 pups by mail. And some adults plants of all varieties. I have had them for 3 weeks now. I got 2 different sets of watering directions. One says to mist with distilled water once every week. With with indirect lighting. The other says dip and shake. I have read lots of different ways to do this.
I am going to give them out as Christmas presents so I want to give the right information. So what is the right info for cold winters and mild summers?
Watering comes down to preference, since misting and soaking/shaking both are fine methods. We would recommend misting much more often than once a week, especially in dry climates (winter heating), so if you like to be more hands on with your plants, this is a good choice. Soaking and shaking off excess water can be done weekly, so that’s a better choice for people who like to spend less time on plant maintenance. Hope that helps!
The question about air plants and water beads was never answered. Can I ‘plant’ an air plant in water beads? Or will it just rot.
Sorry for the delay in responding – glad you wrote back, since it just slipped by us! So the basic answer is, I wouldn’t! Dunk/soak your air plant for 30 minutes in filtered water once per week. Add SuperThrive for boost. You can mist between soaking too, but the roots like to air out so water beads will keep it too wet. Hope that helps! — Kristin at FSG
I just purchased a large terrarium and want to put an air plant in it. It has a small door that I can leave open. 30” tall, 20” in diameter and the door is 4” x 5”. First of all is that enough of an opening for air flow? Can I put aquarium pebbles or shell pieces in the bottom? Lastly, I want to hang it in my greenhouse. Will it be ok in the greenhouse or too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. It is a dome greenhouse.
You will definitely want to leave the door to the terrarium open so your air plant has air flow. You can also put pebbles, shells, etc at the bottom of your terrarium. In fact, base layers like grow pebbles that retain moisture can help provide the humidity that Tillandsia like. Regarding your greenhouse question, I’m not sure what temps your greenhouse reaches, so I can’t advise you on that. I’d suggest doing a quick web search on the minimum and maximum temperatures tolerated by the air plant you have, and then make sure your greenhouse remains within that range. Cheers! Ashley at FSG