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TLC for your Tilly — How to care for your air plants (Tillandsias)

April 10, 2018

No plant thrives on neglect, but air plants are very easy to grow, and they’ll flourish with just a little TLC.

No, air plants are not maintenance free. In fact, I killed my first air plant. It was years ago, before I learned to take the time to find out what each of my houseplants prefers in terms of light and moisture (serves me right, right?), and I took it hard. Maybe I was under the mistaken notion that because an air plant sits there looking like it doesn’t need anything—it’s not even in soil, for heaven’s sake—that it really doesn’t.

Fact is, unless you buy a pretend air plant (the store shelves abound with them, it seems), you’re dealing with a live Tillandsia, which means it has some basic survival needs. It’s not hard to care for, but still, it’s a plant, so it needs some love—specifically, light and moisture. (My plants also enjoy a little encouraging chat when they’re being tended.)

So how much light and water does an air plant need?

air plant in window Air plants like a warm environment (above 50 degrees) and bright, indirect light. Mine are in front of a south window that has a translucent white curtain on it. I’m also told they do well in full spectrum artificial light (fluorescent). If you use grow lights, set them for about 12 hours per day.

Now, any other plants that dangled their roots like air plants do would be begging for some cozy soil to put them in. But not Tillies. Air plants do have leaves and roots, but they don’t want those roots in soil—hence the name air plant. In the wild, Tillandsias grow above the earth, on rocks and tree branches. (Nope, they’re not parasitic.)

To get a good drink of water, an air plant relies on its leaves. Scales on the leaves absorb all the moisture the plant needs (and, I’m told, no more—so no worries about overwatering, as long as you don’t let water sit in the crown of the plant). Air plants don’t simply absorb water from the air, though, at least not inside your heated or air-conditioned home (like they would in a rainforest, for example).

There are a couple of options for watering your air plants, and I like to use a combination of both.

You’ll find all kinds of expert advice for the correct way to water your air plant, with various specific times. Some experts suggest soaking the plants 20-30 minutes each week and then two hours every few weeks, for example, while others suggest only misting them, or only submerging them in water, without misting, for a couple of hours every two weeks.

Here’s my (so far) foolproof, combo method:

Once a week, I pour a gallon of (filtered) water in a very large bowl. (Given my current love affair with Tillies, I’ll soon need to use the sink or bathtub!) I place my air plants in the bowl, roots up, and leave them there for about an hour. Because the plants tend to bob around and not stay completely submerged, I turn them over and leave them for another hour—just to make sure every leaf is getting a good drink. Then I take them out, gently shake off the excess water, and place them on a towel to dry a bit before placing them back in their locations. I use the water in the bowl to water my enormous ficus plant.

During the week, I mist the air plants with filtered water in a spray bottle—every other day, usually. And that’s it!

A few tips:

  • Don’t overmist or neglect to get the water out of the base after soaking. If the plants collect water at the base (and it sits there), it can rot the plant.
  • Especially make sure your plant is dry before you place it back into a closed container, like a glass globe.
  • You’ll know that your air plant is doing well because, well, it’ll look great! If not, tweak your care regimen. If the leaves are curling up or the tips are turning brown, try giving it a bit more water. The needs of your plant will change with the conditions, too—it may need extra mistings when the furnace is running often, for example, and fewer when the summer humidity arrives. The same plant will also probably need more water in a sunnier location than a slightly shady one.
  • Don’t use distilled or softened water unless you let the softened (tap) water sit for 24 hours or more to let the chlorine dissipate.
  • Air plants like good air circulation, so choose its location with that in mind. My large Tilly seems to love its hanging wire holder; air circulates around it 24/7—perfect for the plant with claustrophobic tendencies.
  • Like other plants, Tillies like to be watered in the morning rather than the eve. That’s because they absorb carbon dioxide from the air in the evening—and they can’t do that if the leaves are wet.
  • Don’t be afraid to groom your plant. If some of the outside leaves start to dry out, gently pull or cut them off the plant. You can also trim any dried leaf ends off—they’ll look more natural if you trim them on an angle.
  • Air plants can be fertilized once per month (simply add the fertilizer to your soaking water or mister). Experts recommend a bromeliad (yup, Tillies are a type of bromeliad) or orchid fertilizer. I’m looking for a good organic fertilizer for air plants. Any recommendations?
  • If you want to propagate your air plants, simply cut or pull apart any offshoots (these are called “pups”) when your plant produces them—often around the time they bloom. (Yes, Tillies can bloom. Some only bloom once in a lifetime, but bloom they do!) Your new baby will grow and bloom, too, eventually, and have its own pups. If you don’t pull off the pups, that’s okay, too. Air plants will keep growing on the main plant, creating bouquet of Tillies.

Have you had good luck growing air plants? How do you provide the best TLC for your air plant?

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