Air plants are great plants to have in your indoor plant collection. While they grow on any surface and are very low maintenance, they also rot easily. This is one of the reasons many people shy away from keeping air plants, so how do you keep them from rotting?
To keep air plants from rotting:
- Create a watering schedule.
- Identify the plant species.
- Gently shake out the excess water after soaking.
- Allow the plant to dry.
- Avoid submerging blooms in water.
- Don’t get the decorative support wet.
- Water the plants according to the season.
- Avoid closed-off terrariums.
- Remove rotting leaves.
- Trim dry leaves and roots.
- Expose your plants to sufficient sunlight.
Despite their delicate nature and vulnerability to moisture, you can keep your air plants healthy and attractive for a long time. In this article, I’ll discuss how you can keep them from rotting.
1. Create a Watering Schedule
Since air plants don’t live in soil, they need water to thrive. When they’re in the wild, they use the tiny hair growths on the leaves (called the trichomes) to absorb water from the air. However, because the indoor air can be too dry, air plants need supplemental water, but you need a favorable schedule.
When you first get an air plant, you should start by watering it (unless you’re informed it has recently been watered deeply).
Soak it in water for 20 minutes to an hour, as soaking for any longer than this can lead to rot. You can use a bowl or the sink, or if you have many air plants, you can soak them in a bathtub.
However, air plants with many trichomes (Xeric air plants) will likely rot if they’re soaked in water for too long or too frequently. Instead, you should dunk them in water multiple times instead of soaking them.
Factors, such as humidity levels, will influence your air plant’s watering schedule. Therefore, it’s best to keep altering the schedule until you get a method that works for your plant.
You can also monitor for signs of dehydration to determine if your plant needs to be soaked or misted.
For example, when you soak the air plant, the leaves become firm because they’re full of water. They become softer as they lose water over time, and their color is lighter than their natural color. Air plants also have curled or wrinkled leaves when they’re dehydrated.
Don’t wait for your plants to dehydrate before watering them. You can also use the air plant’s response to the environment as a guide when coming up with an ideal watering schedule.
This helpful YouTube video gives tips on how to water air plants, including how to determine the ideal watering schedule:
2. Identify the Plant Species
Air plants are divided into three main categories: mesic, hydric, and xeric.
The categories are based on the climate that air plants are accustomed to in their natural habitat. Knowing the type of air plant and its adaptation to water will help you know if you should soak it and for how long.
Hydric Species Are Moisture-Loving
Hydric air plants grow in wet areas, either in water or close to it. They have dense canopies, and in the wild, they grow along the Amazon River Delta. These air plants are also found on the Big Island of Hawaii.
You’re unlikely to find this variety in nurseries and retail stores because they’re high maintenance, especially in their demand for water. The air plants you come across are most likely mesic or xeric.
Mesic Air Plants Can Tolerate Wet and Dry Conditions
Mesic air plants share some similarities with hydric air plants—they’re moisture-loving. However, they don’t need as much water as their hydric relatives. These plants are exposed to rainy and dry seasons, but besides rainfall, they can absorb water from mist or fog.
Mesic air plants can be soaked in water for some time because they tolerate wet environments. However, they should only be soaked for less than an hour and left to dry immediately after the soak.
While hydric air plants can easily sit in water for hours without the risk of rot, mesic air plants need a shorter time, preferably an hour. Mesic air plants also appreciate regular misting 3-7 times before the next deep soak.
Examples of mesic air plant species include:
- Tillandsia bulbosa
- Tillandsia andreana
- Tillandsia brachycaulos
- Tillandsia butzii
Xeric Species Can Handle a Bit of Neglect
Xeric air plants originate from dry areas, such as deserts and mountainous regions. Therefore, they can go without water for a long time. They are quite forgiving when you neglect them, so if you travel a lot and may not be around to mist or soak your plants promptly, you should go for this species.
When it comes to soaking xeric air plants, you can soak them for half an hour or longer. However, you shouldn’t soak them as frequently as you would mesic air plants.
Examples of xeric air plants include:
- Tillandsia tectorum
- Tillandsia xerographica
- Tillandsia caput-medusae
- Tillandsia ionantha
|Mesic Air Plants||Xeric Air Plants|
|Mist 3-7 times a week||Doesn’t need regular misting|
|Filtered light||Bright, indirect light|
|Soak in water for an hour once every 7-10 days||Soak in water for 20 minutes to an hour every 2-3 weeks|
|Few microscopic trichomes||More pronounced trichomes.|
|Thicker, greener, smooth, and waxy foliage||Gray-silvery and fuzzier foliage|
Instead of using roots, air plants use trichomes to absorb water. These sponge-like cells are the feeding point for air plants. They also protect the plants from the effects of the sun, which is why xeric species, usually found in warm areas, have more trichomes.
Pro-tip: Don’t Submerge Bulbous Varieties in Water
Air plants usually start to rot from the base. You’ll notice the base turning brown, and then the rot spreads to the rest of the plant. Bulbous air plants have hidden spaces where water can remain undetected.
The leaves are tightly packed, so when you soak the plant, the bulbous base will likely collect too much water and the air plant will start to rot. Fortunately, you may still be able to prevent the damaged plant from dying.
Instead of soaking these air plants, consider dunking them in water several times.
Examples of air plants that shouldn’t be soaked include:
- Tillandsia tectorum has fur-like leaves that absorb water easily. Unfortunately, getting these leaves to dry is difficult if you submerge them in water, increasing the likelihood of rot.
- Tillandsia pruinosa is a bulbous air plant with very thick trichomes that trap water.
- Tillandsia seleriana‘s stem and bottom are bulbous.
These plants are ideal for people who may not have the time or aren’t confident about submerging air plants in water. They’re low maintenance and do well with regular misting.
3. Gently Shake Out the Excess Water After Soaking
After soaking, hold the air plant at the base, turn it over, and shake out the excess water. Sometimes, some water remains between the leaves, and this water is what causes air plants to rot.
Pay attention to bulbous varieties and those with deep pockets, and ensure you check the leaves after shaking them to confirm that there’s no excess water.
4. Allow the Plant to Dry
This is a very important step, as any lingering water on the air plant can quickly lead to root rot, which can spread and kill the plant entirely. Therefore, ensuring the air plant dries sufficiently after watering it is crucial to its care.
There are a couple of ways you can ensure it dries completely:
Place the Air Plant on a Towel for Around Four Hours
After shaking the air plant to remove excess water, place it on a towel to continue to absorb the water.
Additionally, ensure the plant is in a room with adequate air circulation. Otherwise, it won’t dry properly or it’ll take much longer. Leave the air plant to dry for about four hours.
Use a Small Fan to Dry the Plant Completely
You can also use a small air fan to dry the plant quickly. When you place the air plants on a towel but don’t want to wait hours, the air fan will improve the air circulation to quickly remove the excess water on your plant.
However, you should use the lowest setting because you don’t want the plant to dry out too quickly.
5. Avoid Submerging Blooms in Water
It’s a bittersweet moment when your air plant starts to bloom because you’re finally seeing a flower emerge from a slow-growing plant that takes years to flower. You’ll also be getting pups from your air plant. However, this is also a sign that the plant is getting to the end of its life cycle.
Air plants typically need more water when they flower. However, the risk of rotting increases when water settles at the center of the flower. Unfortunately, this makes it easier to miss this excess moisture, and the air plant will start to rot from this spot.
When watering a flowering air plant, consider these care tips:
- Submerge the plant but ensure the flower remains above the water. The air plant usually floats on water and may tilt if you use a large container. Use a small container to hold the air plant and keep the flower from getting wet.
- Mist the leaves regularly but try to keep the flower relatively dry.
- Hold the plant under a faucet with gently flowing water. Wet the leaves for a few minutes, but be careful not to get the flower wet.
6. Don’t Get the Decorative Support Wet
If your air plant is glued on a decorative wooden support, you’ll have to find ways to water the plant without getting the wood wet. Wood retains moisture for a long time, so even if you follow the right watering procedure, wet wooden support will expose the air plant to more moisture for an extended period, resulting in rot.
If you can’t submerge the plant without getting the wood wet, you should turn it over and place it under running water 2-4 times a week. You may also mist the plant daily or every other day. Whenever possible, use a terrarium in which you can easily remove the air plant for watering.
If the wooden support keeps getting wet and retaining moisture, you should consider getting a terrarium made from material that doesn’t absorb water, such as glass or ceramic. You can also easily wipe off any water that drips on these materials.
7. Water the Plants According to the Season
Seasonal changes affect air plants, just as they do other indoor plants. During winter, humidity levels are lower outside. However, your heated home may have higher humidity. Depending on how low your indoor temperatures and humidity levels get, your air plants may need more water in winter.
Regardless of the season, your air plants will need humidity levels of around 60% for optimum health. You can place bowls of water close to the air plant to make the air around it more humid. Alternatively, you can switch on a humidifier or place your air plants in humid rooms like a kitchen or bathroom.
Observe the plants for dried tips and curled leaves. These are signs your air plants are getting dehydrated. If you find yourself watering them too often in winter, you can move them away from vents and drafty windows.
Due to the low temperatures, your air plant may dry out more slowly. So although you must keep the humidity high around your plant, ensure that it has enough time to dry out after a soaking session.
8. Avoid Closed-Off Terrariums
Air circulation prevents moisture buildup in air plants. They also rely on air circulation for nourishment because they absorb nutrients in the air. Unfortunately, some terrariums have lids that aren’t good for air plants, even when they’re marketed for air plants.
These terrariums are more decorative than functional. However, if you really like them, you can use them, but keep the lid off. If the terrarium doesn’t look attractive with the lid off, consider buying one without a lid.
9. Remove Rotting Leaves
When air plants start to rot, they may start with one leaf before moving on to other parts of the plant. You should cut the leaf off when it turns brown and mushy.
This will keep the rot from spreading across the rest of the entire plant. Disinfect your cutting tools before moving from one plant to another.
10. Trim Dry Leaves and Roots
Air plants occasionally need a trim. They’re slow growers, so you may trim them infrequently. However, it would be best to regularly trim dried leaves, as these leaves are great at trapping water and causing the plant to rot.
You should also cut off leaves that appear to be rotting before the rot spreads through to the other leaves. Unfortunately, if the rot starts from the middle leaves, you may be unable to save the air plant. If you attempt to trim the inner leaves, you may damage the entire plant.
If the air plants have roots, you can use this chance to cut them. There’s a misconception that air plants don’t grow roots, but they do.
In humid climates, air plants attach themselves to trees using their roots. So just because they’re growing in a different environment doesn’t mean they don’t grow roots.
11. Expose Your Plants to Sufficient Sunlight
All air plants thrive when they’re placed in a spot with indirect sunlight. Xeric air plants prefer bright, indirect light, while mesic air plants do well in spots with filtered light. Unfortunately, many people look at air plants as a part of the decor and forget that they’re still indoor plants with needs.
Unlike other plants, which photosynthesize during the day, air plants do it at night. As they breathe, they transpire. However, if you keep watering your plants but expose them to too little light, they won’t utilize the water sufficiently during photosynthesis. This will cause them to start rotting.
Signs that your air plant isn’t getting sufficient sunlight include:
- Loss of its natural color
- The leaves cup inwards
- The leaves start falling off
Besides ensuring your plants get the right light intensity, they should be exposed to at least 6 hours of indirect sunshine daily. If your house doesn’t have a spot where air plants get the right lighting, you can use artificial lighting 1-2 feet (30-60 cm) from the air plant for 10 hours a day.
Air plants are low-maintenance indoor plants. However, they also rot easily. When you figure out the perfect spot for them and water them correctly, you may see them thrive and even flower and produce pups when they approach the end of their life cycle.