Last Updated on October 31, 2021 by Phil
Air plants are unique, beautiful and small which makes them perfect as indoor plants. And, while they’re generally easy to care for, there’s one aspect of air plant care that is tricky – watering. In this guide, I’ll show you how to water an air plant to make sure they stay healthy.
This is crucial in keeping your air plants alive since too much water can easily lead to rotting, which in turn can ultimately destroy your air plant.
As such, you want to make sure you’re watering your air plant properly.
What is an Air Plant?
Before I get into how to water an air plant, it is well worth spending some time to understand what an air plant is. This will help you understand its watering requirements better.
Air plants are botanically known as Tillandsia, which is the genus to which they belong to. Just as importantly, there are a few hundred species of air plants. So, if you’re looking for a certain kind, you’ll need to be more specific about it.
Unfortunately, many of them look alike or very similar to one another. Thus, making it difficult to tell the difference between some. I know that identifying air plants is more challenging for me compared to other types of plants.
Another thing worth noting is that, air plants are tropical in nature. As such, they enjoy warm, humid conditions and will not tolerate the cold.
They are native to the southern parts of the U.S. Mexico, Central and South America. In addition to being humid, the weather is likewise warm in these areas. As such, air plants won’t do well in temperatures under 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Last but not least, air plants are epiphytes.
They get their name from the fact that they grow in the air (using their tiny roots to cling onto larger plants and trees in the forest) as opposed to growing on the ground in soil (like terrestrial plants do).
However, it is important to note that air plants are not parasites. As such, they do not rob nutrients from the host plant on which they cling onto. Instead, these larger plants act more like an anchor where the air plants live on.
Another difference air plants have compared to most traditional plants is they use their long, narrow leaves to absorb water and nutrients from the air. This is where they get their sustenance.
In contrast, most plants use their roots to gain nourishment. But, for air plants, roots are more for anchoring themselves to other plants.
This makes caring for air plants very different from regular houseplants.
In their native habitat, the high humidity and debris from the larger plants easily provide air plants with the water and nutrients they need in the air.
But, that’s not always the case indoors. As such, if you’re growing Tillandsia indoors, you need to keep humidity up or regularly soak them.
How to Water an Air Plant
Unfortunately, soaking air plants is not as straightforward as it seems. That is, there is a right and wrong way to water them.
The important thing to keep in mind here is that they are epiphytes. As such, while they do absorb water from the air, they are also easily susceptible to too much water.
Thus, you want to be careful when watering your air plant.
The best time to water your air plants is in the morning. This gives them enough time during the day when there is sunlight to dry.
In contrast, the worst time to water them is during the night when the weather is cooler and there is no sun. This extends the drying period putting your air plant at risk of potential problems in the long term.
The reason being that air plants absorb carbon dioxide at night. So, if they’re wet, the moisture will interrupt their ability to respire.
The only exception to this is if you have a dry or dehydrated air plant. In this state, your Tillandsia will be thirsty and you’ll likely see the negative effects of its lack of water.
Thus, rehydrating it will be your priority to try and help it recover. In this case, you can soak it in water overnight for several hours. This will help it revive.
Here’s how to water your air plant.
- Gently take them off from where they are displayed.
- Fill a bowl of sink with water. The size will depend on how many air plants you want to soak at the same time.
- Submerge the air plants into the bowl or sink. You want to get them underwater so that the liquid covers all the Tillandsia.
- After a few seconds or minutes, some of the air plants will float up. Don’t worry about them. As long as majority of the plant is under water, it will be able to get the hydration it needs.
- Leave the air plants in water for an hour. Note that the time can vary from 20 minutes to 1 hour depending on how often you water them.
- When done, take each plant out of the water and shake well (but gently) to remove any excess moisture. Water tends to pool in base of the plant and its inner leaves. So, you want to check those areas for each Tillandsia.
- Next is drying your air plant. You can keep them outside in a bright, dry area with enough air. Avoid direct sunlight since you’ll be leaving it there for anywhere between 1 to 3 hours to dry. Alternatively, you can dry them indoors by placing them upside down on a towel in a bright area.
- Check on the air plants every so often to see if they’ve dried. You also want to watch out for any pooling of water which can cause rotting.
- You want to avoid overly long drying periods as well (more than 3 hours) otherwise it also increases the risk of rotting. An analogy here is hang drying laundry. After a certain period, you start to get that musky smell on your thicker towels. That’s not a good sign. As such, good air circulation is very important to help speed up the drying process.
- After they’ve dried, return them to their original spot. Never return your air plant to its place, especially if that is a terrarium or vase without allowing it to completely dry. This increases the risk of developing rot.
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How Often to Water Air Plants?
The tricky part about watering air plants is that they need a lot of water (as you see from above). But, if they get too much water, rotting can occur and your Tillandsia can eventually die.
In a way, this is how most plants live. And such is the case for houseplants as well which requires soil that retains water but also one that drains well.
Again, that’s the challenge you’ll need to come to grips with when caring for most plants.
When it comes to watering frequency, I’ve found that the sweet spot is between 7 to 10 days. The more often you water your air plant (every 7 days), the more leeway you have to slightly shorten the duration.
In contrast, the less frequent you water (10 days), the longer (1 hour) you’ll need to keep them submerged in the water.
This will ensure that they get enough water to grow optimally.
The above advice is base on my experience without misting.
However, if you mist your air plants in addition to soaking them, you’ll want to cut back on watering (soaking) them. That’s because they get supplemental misting in between.
And, the more you mist the less frequent you’ll want to soak.
From experience, I’ve found that the frequency can vary from soaking once every 2 weeks to once a month. But, avoid going longer than 4 weeks without a soak.
Also, if you mist, you can get away with shorter soaks. I know some growers who only soak for 10 to 20 minutes at a time because they mist regularly.
This also makes the drying period faster, which reduces the risk of rotting.
Unfortunately, there is not exact science as to when you should water your air plants. That’s because it depends on the climate where you live, how much sun they receive, the humidity in the air, how often you mist, how much you mist and how long your soak them.
All these factors will vary for everyone.
So, the best way is to use the tips as a starting point then adjust as you go along based on your home’s environment and your plant’s living conditions.
What is the Best Water to Use to Water Air Plants?
When using water to soak or mist your air plants, you want to use room temperature or lukewarm at most. Avoid hot or cold water as it will shock the plant.
That said, the best type of water for air plants is something that is clean and container nutrients. That’s because air plants not only get hydration from water but also sustenance. As such, water with minerals and nutrients is best.
Ideally, you want to use water from nature. This includes rain water, spring water, lake, well or creek water.
Other options include aquarium water and pond water which are both high in nutrients and minerals as well thanks to the fish.
Distilled or Purified Water
Some people recommend bottled or distilled water. However, I feel that they’re too pure because all the minerals have been filtered from them. So, your air plants don’t get the nutrients they need.
That said, avoid water with too many minerals.
I’ve heard some people try to compensate the lack of minerals in distilled water with fertilizer. Never do that!
This makes tap water a question mark. While I know some gardeners who use tap water with their air plants I don’t use it nor do I recommend it.
That’s because the amount of chlorine, fluoride and other chemicals vary significantly from county to county. As such, you can’t really tell how much is in there. And, some municipalities include way too much of a certain mineral.
Too much minerals also runs of the risk of clogging trichomes in the leaves of your air plant. When this happens, it reduces the amount of water and nutrients the plant is able to absorb.
So if you want to use tap water, I advise it letting it sit in room temperature to let the chlorine evaporate first.
Softened water is also something you want to avoid. That’s because of its high salt content. Plants in general don’t like high levels of salt.
That’s why you don’t see a lot of plants growing near the sea or beaches.
The good news is, air plants are not overly picky with water. As such, you can pretty much get away with tap water as long as the quality is not questionable.
The reason I don’t recommend using tap water straight out of the sink is because you never know what quality you get in your area. But, if you’re sure that it does not container overly high minerals, then you’re good to go.
Speaking of which, the other thing about water quality is its pH level.
This is not a big issue as air plants don’t mind it as much. You’re better off focusing on how clean the water it.
In any case, air plants do best in slightly acidic water with pH between 5.5 to 6.0. Most municipalities will have pH that’s slightly higher which also makes it less ideal.
Again, don’t spend much time worrying about pH.
Should I Mist My Air Plants?
Most nurseries and garden centers will tell you to mist your air plant a few times a week. Also, growers who keep their air plants in greenhouses also mist them.
However, you need to make this decision yourself because there is no right or wrong answer.
That is, both misting and no misting will work. The key is how you do it or not do it.
Personally, I don’t mist.
That’s because it is a lot of work to mist a few times a week especially if you have a lot of plants. More importantly, I’ve found that it is very difficult to be precisely consistent with misting.
And because I can’t be consistent, misting more this week and less next week actually ends up messing up how often I need to soak my air plants.
The other reason I don’t mist is that even if you do, you’ll still need to soak your air plants anyway because misting is not going to be enough.
So, I just go with soaking them.
That said, if you have a greenhouse or live somewhere there’s high humidity, you can get away with just misting. That’s because the humidity (and supplemental misting) will be enough to keep air plants happy.
Is My Air Plant Getting Enough Water?
If you mist your air plant and soak it every so often, lack of water shouldn’t be a problem.
Unfortunately, our fast and busy lifestyles often means we can easily forget to do so. Thus, like houseplants, it is very important to know the signs of underwatering.
When it comes to air plants, the most common symptoms of lack of water include:
- Curling leaves
- Rolling leaves
- Leaves that fold together
Then there are more serious signs as well. These include:
Any sign of distress will often point to watering issues
- Crispy leaf tips
- Brown leaf ends
It is also worth noting that air plants will green leaves tend to need more water (you need to water them more frequently) than those with gray leaves.
Signs of Overwatering
While lack of water can cause problems for your air plants, overwatering is by far more dangerous. I’ve noticed that dry or thirsty air plants are easier to revive than those that are overwatered.
You can soak them for a few hours and then dry them off. I’ve also seen a friend soak her air plant overnight and successfully help it recover from dehydration.
However, the opposite is not true for overwatering. As such, you want to avoid this at all costs. If not, it is essential to spot signs of overwatering early.
In many cases, when overwatered air plants get past a certain point, there’s just no recovering no matter what you do.
These are the signs you want to watch out for:
- Your air plant losing its leaves
- Parts of the base turning brown or black
Unfortunately, if you see the latter, that means rot is setting in. The more brown or black areas there are in the base, the worse the rot has gotten. If most of the base if dark colored, odds are your Tillandsia has already been overwhelmed by rot.
How to Avoid Air Plant Diseases
The biggest threat to air plants when it comes to diseases it rotting. Unfortunately, rot is very hard to fix and a lot of it really comes down to luck and how resilient the plant is.
If you spot it early, you have a chance to help the plant recover. But, in many cases, the signs will appear later in the process which makes it very difficult for your air plant to recover.
As such, the best way to keep your plant safe from rotting is prevention.
And, the best part is, it comes down to how you water (soak) your air plant and dry it afterwards.
If you do this properly, I truly believe that rotting is almost 100% preventable.
The most important thing to remember after soaking are:
- Gently shake the air plant to get rid of excess moisture before letting it dry.
- When drying, turn your Tillandsia upside down before laying it on a towel. This position will help prevent moisture from collecting in the crown of the plant which is the main cause of rotting.
- Keep the air plants on a towel under a bright spot with good air circulation. This sun and air flow will help speed up the drying process.
- You don’t want over extended drying periods where you Tillandsia takes more than 2 or 3 hours to dry. This also increases the risk of rotting.
Enjoy Your Air Plants
Learning how to water an air plant is very important because they need the hydration and nourishment from it. However, the process can be tricky so it is important to know when to water and how to water.
Too little or too much water will eventually harm your plant. Thus, understanding the signs of underwatering and overwatering as well as what to do in case of each goes a long way when it comes to caring for your air plant.