Air plants are fairly easy to care for, but you will occasionally encounter dry or wet rot, fading leaf color, burnt leaves, curling leaves, and generally poor health. Like other plants, you can easily tell when something is wrong with your air plant based on the symptoms. It would help if you found the cause sooner to apply suitable solutions.
To save a damaged air plant:
- Stop watering to keep root rot from getting worse.
- Find the cause of brown leaf tips.
- Move the air plant plant to better lighting.
- Reverse fertilizer burn.
- Identify and get rid of pests quickly.
- Use filtered water, rain, or pond water.
- Control brown rot.
- Avoid copper terrariums.
- Remove the air plant from sealed terrariums.
- Change the watering schedule when it gets cold.1
Air plant damage comes in different forms, and some symptoms may have multiple possible causes. It would be best to use the process of elimination to determine the cause and avoid using the wrong remedy to revive your air plant. I’ll discuss the symptoms and remedies in detail and how to differentiate the damage.
1. Stop Watering to Keep Root Rot From Getting Worse
Rot is one of the most common issues in air plants. Overwatering takes different forms in air plants. So, if the air plants start to rot, you need to find out at what point water became a problem.
For example, air plants rot when:
- Water pools in the crown.
- There is insufficient air circulation to help prevent moisture accumulation.
- The air plant doesn’t dry after submerging it.
- The room temperature is very low.
- The humidity levels are high.
- You mist the air plant excessively or too often.
- You mist the air plant while it is in the terrarium.
You can tell your air plant is rotting when the leaves develop brown, yellow, or black spots. The area around the crown also tends to feel soft because this is where water sits and the rot begins. Left unattended, the foliage will begin to fall off the plant.
Unfortunately, rot caused by overwatering is sometimes difficult to reverse, especially if the damage is extensive. However, you can take the following steps to prevent and also attempt to keep the rot from spreading and destroying the entire air plant.
Tug on the discolored leaves to see if they come off easily. If they do, your air plant may be too damaged.
However, if it is hard to pull out the leaves, check if you can still see some green at the base. This is a sign your air plant has a chance at being revived.
Cut off the brown tips, especially if they have become dry and crispy. If most of the plant appears salvageable, plan a watering schedule that allows the plant to dry before the next watering session. Be sure to stick to the watering schedule to improve the plant’s condition.
Depending on the plant variety, you may need to adjust your watering schedule. For example, mesic air plants (dark green and curvy leaves) need to be watered more often. In contrast, xeric air plants (silvery leaves with fuzzy texture) can go for a long time without water.
Check the leaves for signs that the air plant needs water. You’ll need to pay attention to the leaves to see if the leaves are curling inwards. If so, this is a sign your air plant needs more water.
Follow the steps below when watering your air plants:
Soak the Plant in Water
First, you should soak your air plant thoroughly in a tub of filtered water or rainwater for 10-30 minutes. Avoid wetting the flowers of blooming air plants. Give it some time to air dry by placing the plant upside down on a clean towel to remove excess water.
Doing this once weekly for indoor air plants with thicker leaves and 2-3 times a week for those with thinner leaves will keep your air plants well-hydrated.
Improve air circulation around your plant
To improve circulation around your plant, set your small fan at the lowest setting and direct it towards the air plant after you water it.
Avoid Using Terrariums With a Lid
A lid will prevent adequate air circulation and increase the humidity around the plant. Also, remove the air plant from the terrarium when misting and put it back in the terrarium around ten minutes after misting.
Maintain an Ideal Temperature
Maintain an optimal room temperature (65-85 °F or 18-28 °C), irrespective of the season. During extreme weather conditions, you can move the plant indoors, where it’ll be easier to control the temperature and humidity levels.
Fortunately, air plants thrive in similar temperatures humans find comfortable. They also do well with 50% humidity.
This video gives a general guideline on the care of air plants, including how to water, position, and fertilize them.
2. Find the Cause of Brown Leaf Tips
Air plants exposed to direct sunshine usually lose water and develop brown tips. It may start with one leaf and then spread to the rest of the plant. The plant may die if left under the scorching sun for too long.
If your air plant is in a sunny spot and has brown tips, then the air plant is exposed to extreme heat.
It is also possible for brown tips to have multiple causes, such as underwatering. Air plants that develop brown leaf tips from underwatering have leaves curling inwards. If the leaves are brown but not curling, chances are the damage is due to extreme heat or low humidity.
- Soak your air plants in a tub of distilled water for 30 minutes. Do this weekly or twice a week if it is too hot and the air plant loses moisture quickly.
- Relocate your air plant to a partly shaded area. Protect it from the intense sunlight while it recovers. Continuous exposure to bright light will bleach the leaves.
- Increase the number of times you mist the air plant in a week. Doing this, especially during hot and dry conditions, will help your plant recover more quickly.
When solving problems resulting from underwatering and extreme heat, you must be careful not to go overboard when watering your air plant. You can easily transition from an underwatered air plant to an overwatered one. Unfortunately, this comes with other sets of problems that are sometimes worse.
3. Move the Air Plant Plant to Better Lighting
Loss of leaf color doesn’t happen overnight, but sometimes it feels like it does. This process occurs over a long time, and the main cause of the change in leaf color in air plants is exposure to little light, no light, or direct sunlight.
If your air plant is turning white or a pale shade of its natural color, this is a sign that it is not getting enough light. Unfortunately, it takes a long time for air plants to indicate that they need more light.
The loss of leaf color may be your plant’s final cry for help. Other signs include the leaves curling inward and sometimes falling apart.
Air plants also change color when you place them in a spot with too much sunlight, especially after watering them. It may appear to be a good idea, especially if you are worried about the plant rotting. However, your plant is likely to suffer sunburn.
When you place a wet air plant next to a window, the glass will act like a magnifying glass. It will reflect light on the air plant, resulting in scorched leaves and brown tips. The effects of too much sunlight on air plants are more pronounced, and the damage occurs quickly.
- Trim or gently pull out the damaged leaves.
- Submerge air plants in water immediately. This is a solution for plants with scorched leaves. After that, follow the regular watering schedule, where you submerge the air plant in water once a week. When watering your air plant, remember to dry it before putting it up on display.
- Mist the air plant daily if the humidity level in your home is below 40%.
- Find a spot where the plant gets enough light. You can also use artificial light in case your plant isn’t getting enough sunlight.
- Wait until the air plant recovers before fertilizing it.
The air plant’s recovery will take a while, so you need to be patient.
4. Reverse Fertilizer Burn
Air plants are slow growers, so they may not need fertilizer as much as other indoor plants. However, there might not be enough nutrients in the air for your air plant. In that case, you should fertilize air plants once a month.
If you do it too often, your plants will likely suffer from fertilizer burn. An air plant with brown, dry, and crispy leaves is most likely damaged from the overuse of fertilizer.
- Submerge your air plant in water, as per your watering routine.
- Avoid fertilizing your air plant for a few months, at least until the plant recovers.
- Cut off the affected leaves, especially those severely affected by fertilizer burn.
When fertilizing, only use ¼ of the recommended strength. You’d rather use a weak fertilizer-water solution than too much fertilizer. When misting with water containing fertilizer, you should first add fertilizer in a gallon (3.8 L) of water before transferring it to the sprayer.
You can also find fertilizers specifically designed for air plants at your garden center or online.
5. Identify and Get Rid of Pests Quickly
Indoor plants are not as vulnerable to pests and diseases as the plants in the garden. However, pests occasionally attack air plants, especially mealybugs and scale. Mealybugs suck sap from leaves and roots, resulting in yellow and soft leaves.
You’ll also notice waxy, cotton-like substances on your air plant. Over time, the air plant will start to fall apart and die.
Scale pests feed on the air plant like the mealy bugs. When adult female scale pests find the ideal spot on air plants, they attach themselves to it and will keep feeding until they die or the plant dies. You’ll have to destroy the scale insects to save the damaged air plants.
- Isolate the plant. Once pests attack one indoor plant, they will likely move to other nearby plants.
- Submerge the air plant in water. You can also rinse the affected leaves in running water. Some bugs may fall off when you wash them off.
- Spray your air plant with neem oil, insecticidal soap, or dish soap. Keep your plant away from bright sunlight after applying treatment to prevent leaf burn.
6. Use Filtered Water, Rain, or Pond Water
Air plants don’t usually show sensitivity to the water you use. However, fluorine and chlorine cause the tips to turn brown. The leaves may also have white-like deposits. Soil usually filters salt deposits in the water.
Unfortunately, air plants don’t have this benefit, so they will start showing signs of salt damage faster. If you don’t fix the issue promptly, the salt deposits will suffocate the trichomes and prevent the air plant from absorbing water and nutrients.
- Submerge the air plant in distilled water to get rid of the salt deposits.
- Cut the brown tips.
- Remove brown leaves.
Water your plant occasionally with rain, lake, well, or non-carbonated mineral water. Avoid watering exclusively with distilled water because this water lacks minerals that are beneficial to air plants.
7. Control Brown Rot
If you start noticing brown rot at the base of your air plant, it is likely because of the following:
- Poor air circulation
- Moisture pooling at the base of the air plant
- Cold temperatures
- Storing the air plant immediately after watering or misting it.
- Hang the air plant upside down to prevent moisture from building up on the plant’s base.
- Place the plant in a spot where there is adequate air circulation.
- Avoid misting your air plant excessively.
- Move air plants away from the window or spots closest to the window because these areas are too cold.
- Keep your plant within the optimum temperature and humidity levels. Low temperatures (below 50 °F / 10 °C) will slow down evaporation. When humidity levels rise in the room, it can result in brown rot.
8. Avoid Copper Terrariums
If your plant still appears unhealthy even when you have changed the watering routine and fertilized it, then it’s time to consider the possibility that toxins are infiltrating the air plants. The most likely source of toxins in air plants is the terrarium.
When shopping for terrariums, you will likely find some made from copper wire. Besides the curled copper wires, some glass terrariums are coated with copper. At a glance, they appear to be the perfect terrarium.
However, when copper is constantly exposed to moisture, it oxidizes and limits the absorption of nutrients by air plants.
Many plant accessories are made of copper, but most are not real copper. Copper-coated accessories are safe for your air plants. You only need to worry about plant poisoning when using terrariums made from real copper.
You can easily differentiate real copper from fake copper in multiple ways.
- Is expensive
- Is reddish-brown
- Tarnishes and turns greenish when it oxidizes
- Has a soft sound when you hit it with another metal. If the copper gives a loud sound, it is not real
- Avoid using terrariums made of copper.
- Submerge the air plant in water to wash away the toxins and let it dry.
- Remove the air plant from the terrarium for some time to see if its appearance will change.
- Apply a clear coating to seal the copper and keep it from poisoning the air plant.
9. Remove the Air Plant From Sealed Terrariums
If the air plant in your terrarium suffers from moisture damage, the terrarium may be responsible. The shape of the terrarium and the presence of a lid are partly responsible for poor air circulation and moisture retention in air plants.
- Avoid putting your air plant in the terrarium before it is completely dry.
- Use a terrarium with a wide mouth.
- Occasionally remove the plant from the terrarium and place it in a spot with adequate air circulation.
- Avoid covering the terrarium with a lid.
- Get a bigger terrarium if your plant is too big for your current one.
10. Change the Watering Schedule When It Gets Cold
The ideal watering schedule for air plants is once a week for plants with thicker foliage and longer soaks every 2-3 weeks for those with thinner ones.
However, this schedule works best when the temperatures are on the higher limit (85 °F or 28 °C). If you follow this schedule when it is colder, your plant will start retaining moisture and rot. If you don’t adjust the watering routine, your air plant will turn brown and the base will fall apart.
In an indoor space, it’s typically easier to control the environmental conditions around your plant. You wouldn’t have to make watering adjustments if the humidity levels stay between 50 and 70% and the temperatures within 65-85 °F (18-28 °C).
But if the temperatures drop below 50 °F (10 °C), you can employ the following solutions:
- Soak thicker air plants in tepid filtered water for 10-30 minutes once every 2-3 weeks. Alternatively, you can mist them thoroughly once a week and allow them to air dry.
- Soak thinner air plants in water for an hour about once a week. You can also mist them about once or twice a week between soakings if they dry out too fast.
- Avoid misting in the evening as the air plant will not respire. This will speed up your air plant’s death.
- Use a dehumidifier to reduce humidity around the plant, especially when levels go beyond 70%.
- Pay attention to the effect of heaters and the fireplace on the air and, ultimately, the air plant.
Air plants suffer extensive damage that is mostly a result of overwatering and underwatering. It is easier to reverse the effects of giving too little water than using too much.
Fortunately, when you pay attention to your air plant, you will understand the signs and causes of the damage. The earlier you notice a problem, the easier it will be to save the air plant. Waiting too long, hoping the plant will adjust to the environment, will cost you your air plant.